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Title: The Ends Of Justice Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1100061h.html Language: English Date first posted: February 2011 Date most recently updated: April 2012 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy. HTML version by Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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|I - His Lordship Is Indisposed
II - The Evening After
III - Delilah!
IV - "I Am Innocent"
V - The Man With The Tarry Thumbs
VI - The Click Of The Typewriter
VII - The Wanderer Returns
VIII - A Surprise For The Prosecution
IX - In Favor Of The Prisoner
X - Mostyn Has A Visitor
XI - The Empty Chamber
XII - The Worm Turns
XIII - More Telegrams Than One
XIV - Remorse
XV - Found!
XVI - A Friend In Need
XVII - A Dramatic Entrance<<br> XVIII - Mostyn Is Alarmed
|XIX - "The Queen Of The Mist"
XX - Powell Intervenes
XXI - Renton Takes The Risk
XXII - Danger
XXIII - What Did He Know?
XXIV - Madness
XXV - The Interrupted Feast
XXVI - A Waiting Game
XXVII - A Perilous Errand
XXVIII - The Flask Of Burgundy
XXIX - On The Verge
XXX - In The Net
XXXI - Drawing Closer
XXXII - On The Lone Star
XXXIII - By The Throat
XXXIV - On The Flat Sands
XXXV - An Open Verdict
It was nothing but a dream. He would wake up presently, with the heaving deck under his feet and the salt of the sea pungent in his nostrils. Meanwhile the dream was horribly realistic; so were the prison bars, the acrid smell of fresh whitewash, the tramp of heavy feet in the clanging corridors, the rattle of keys in distant locks.
"My God!" George Cathcart cried. "I shall go mad. I shall—"
He paused, overcome with the crushing burden of it all. He paced up and down the narrow cell, backwards and forwards, restlessly, like a tiger in a cage, his magnificent chest heaving like that of a distressed runner.
A criminal? Well, perhaps. But there was nothing criminal about the clear-cut brown face, nothing furtive in those clear, blue eyes. And yet, unless some miracle happened, George Cathcart stood face to face with the certainty of a long term of penal servitude. A victim of circumstances, the tool and scapegoat of rascals who walked unscathed in the broad light of day. One moment it seemed impossible that he could be convicted, yet another moment and the damning evidence on which he had been committed for trial caused him to tremble with something worse than fear.
In the face of that evidence, who would believe his story? He might as well stand up in court and denounce the learned judge who tried him, as attack the name of those who had brought him to this pass.
Cathcart flung himself down at length, utterly worn out and exhausted. He turned to his breakfast, and then away again with a loathing and disgust. A foggy November sun struggled through the narrow window; outside, in the street beyond, some boys were squabbling over a game of marbles. The little assize town of Lewton took but faint interest in the legal function annually held there. Lewton 'gaol' was little more than a lock-up. The court accommodation was of the vilest, and loud were the complaints of Bench and Bar that the whole assize had not been transported to Beachmouth years before. It was all the same to Cathcart. On the whole, he could hide his shame better there.
Cathcart could hear the sounds of bustle and pomp outside. He heard the judge's carriage drive up presently; he could catch the thud of dogged, patient footsteps of witnesses as they shuffled up and down the pavement outside. Then the door of the cell opened, and the warder in charge came in. Lewton gaol was not of sufficient importance to boast of a governor. Samuel Gem nodded to the prisoner.
"Your case will be called next," he said. "If you want to see a lawyer—"
"I want to see nothing." George replied doggedly. "When all the powers of hell are allied against me, what does one paltry servant of the devil matter?"
"Going to plead guilty, eh?"
"Going to do nothing of the sort. But I'm not going to waste the little money I have on lawyers."
Gem fidgeted pompously about the cell. He was a little man, with a distinctly military manner, and a large idea of his own importance. A lady-killer, too, in his own small way, and impressionable so far as the other sex was concerned. Beyond a love for being mistaken for a commissioned officer, Samuel Gem had one rosy dream. That was to save one thousand pounds and take a place in the country, where he could grow flowers and fruit. But this weakness was known to few.
"I suppose you've got friends some where," he suggested.
"Ay, I have," George said bitterly. "But I'm not going to let them know of the disgrace that has befallen me. There were one or two men who were with me at Oxford, and there is a girl who lives not two miles from here; but that's my business."
A couple of hours dragged slowly away before the cell door opened again. George noticed how thick the fog lay in the corridor. Out of the gloom the two stalwart policemen came clanking imperiously.
"Prisoner, you're wanted," one of them said curtly.
George nodded defiantly. He hoped that these men could not hear how wildly his heart was beating. With a proud face Cathcart marched between the two men in blue, he passed through an old nail-studded door into a kind of deep brown well, and was immediately conscious that three hundred pairs of eyes were turned upon him. Those glances stung like whip lashes; they seemed to fall on Cathcart's heart, and leave it bare and bleeding. In a dazed kind of way he stumbled into the dock, and stood there trembling. He clutched the rail before him until the stout oak creaked, and then the knowledge that his soul was free from crime came back to him, and he took in the whole court with clear and steady gaze.
He saw a group of vagrant loungers in the gallery, half-hidden in the gloom, and yet eager to follow the story of a crime. Under the dock, in the well of the court, was the long solicitors' table, and behind that a circular bench and table for the use and benefit of the bar. Some of the bewigged juniors were so close that Cathcart could have snatched the horsehair from the heads of several had he been so disposed.
Across the other side of the hall was a weird old oak four-poster kind of arrangement, under which the commissioner sat. For the moment the judicial throne was deserted. Presently there was a movement and flutter amongst the bar, the rep curtains were drawn back, and as Sir Cyril Bath came in Cathcart glanced up at him listlessly and then down again. It seemed to him that he had seen that clear-cut, incisive face before, only the heavy grey wig and gold-rimmed spectacles made a difference. His mind went wandering off vaguely. He was at sea again, with the rolling deck swaying under his feet....
"Prisoner at the bar! Prisoner at the bar!"
A policeman shook Cathcart roughly. He murmured some vague, hoarse apology under his breath. The Clerk of Sessions was reading the long indictment with level monotony.
"Prisoner at the bar! You are charged inasmuch as that you did, between the 17th and the 19th of September last, conspire with one Seth Powell, since deceased, to cast away the yacht Lone Star on the high seas. And, furthermore—"
Cathcart ceased to listen. He had heard that jargon till he was sick to death of it. He had conspired to cast away the Lone Star, so said the prosecution, for the sake of the heavy insurance, in connection with one Seth Powell, who had since committed suicide. And the deadly thing was that he really had cast away the Lone Star by which catastrophe no lives had been lost, so that only by good luck did he escape the capital charge. And how could he prove that he had been made the victim of a gang of the most infamous rascals who ever sent a coffin ship to her doom for the sake of her heavy insurance?
"Do you plead guilty, or not guilty?"
Cathcart came to himself again with a start. He drew himself up, but glanced round the gloomy court proudly. He looked with blue eyes into the face of the judge.
"Not guilty," he cried. His voice rang in the brown rafters. He seemed to rivet Sir Cyril Bath with his steely gaze. "Not guilty, your lordship, if I stand here—"
George Cathcart said no more. Just for the moment he might have been the judge and the keen-faced man in the wig the prisoner. With a queer, startled cry, the great man pitched forward, he swayed from side to side of his judicial throne. He would have fallen it the associate by his side had not caught him. The strange white pallor of his face was a grotesque contrast to his grey wig. His queer, tremulous cry still rang in the ears of all present.
A jangled hubbub followed. Obsequious ushers came charging in with glasses of water. The prisoner was forgotten for the moment. He had quite forgotten his own parlous state. With a curious feeling he watched that huddled heap of silk and ermine and horsehair, till he saw it struggle upwards into the semblance of a man.
"I'm all right now," came a hoarse whisper that echoed round the rigidly still court-house. "A heart spasm. Please go back to your places."
The ghastly grey of the face gave way to a healthier hue, but Cathcart did not fail to note that Sir Cyril lay back with his features quite hidden throughout the morning. The cool, judicial air came back presently, gradually the incident was forgotten. But not one word did Sir Cyril utter as the prosecution proceeded.
The case was damning enough; it was black as Erebus from the first. One or two witnesses were obviously lying, but there were other witnesses who made a telling story against the prisoner. He was startled to find what a deal they knew of his career. The production of his banking account of itself almost proved the case for the prosecution.
Well, it didn't matter. The court was getting hot and stuffy, and Cathcart was nodding, dazed, and tired, and worn out with want of sleep. Moreover, there was no chance of the case being finished to-day, so that the nervous tension was not so great as it would be later on.
Cathcart was dreaming of many things. He wondered why those idle young barristers could remain in court when they might have been much more healthily employed outside. Some of them assumed to be busy—one especially, right under the dock, who was making notes in a dashing handwriting on sheets of paper, and then tearing them up again. He had a couple of big books before him that effectually protected his literary labors from the curious gaze of his next-door neighbor. He was a brown-faced young man, with filaments of tar on his well-shaped hands. An enthusiastic yachts man evidently, a man who could sail his own boat. Cathcart was quite interested in the brown-faced man.
The latter was making notes again. Cathcart glanced down curiously. He could see the words quite plainly. He bit his lip to keep back the cry that knocked hard at his lips for exit.
"Keep your heart up, Cathcart: fine weather is coming. If you've got that, give a quiet sigh—I shall hear you."
Cathcart sighed gently in a dazed kind of way. He saw a quick jerk of the sleek, close-cropped head below, and then the slip of paper was torn into the most minute fragments. Cathcart had forgotten all about his perilous position for the moment; he heard not the voice or the witness, or the mouthing questions of the eminent K.C. who represented the Crown. His whole soul was absorbed in the contemplation of the scribe below him, who was busy with his pen again. A moment later and he was reading with breathless interest once more:
"A stout heart and do exactly what you are told. You are an honorable man, and I can trust you. At midnight you will stand outside Lewton gaol a free man. Wait there and do as you are told, or you may get a girl into serious trouble."
The paper was destroyed again. There was a pause for a moment, and then on a fresh sheet the strange ally wrote two words. They were the name of a girl—the pretty name of Russet Ray.
"My God!" Cathcart thought. "My own dear Russet. I am losing my senses."
But he wasn't. Far from it. The name disappeared, and more writing followed.
"You are to do as you are told, and when your task is finished you are to come back here to the gaol, and the hand that releases you will be the hand that sees you safe under lock and key again. But you will have done the best day's work you ever did in your life. Give me your word of honor that shall be so. Cough."
Cathcart coughed. He held his breath, waiting for what was to come. But nothing more came, for the simple reason that the man with the tar on his nails rose quietly and left the court. As he passed through the nail-studded door he flashed Cathcart one meaning look.
The prisoner passed his hand across his brow; he tried to collect his scattered thoughts. Then somebody was heard to say that the court was held adjourned till ten the following morning and George saw, to his intense surprise, that it was four o'clock.
He was back in his cell again, pacing up and down, mad for the quick flight of time and the coming of midnight. He fought down a wild desire to beat himself against the bars.
"What does it mean?" he murmured. "Hope! I dare not think of it! Heaven grant me patience to wait. If I could only sleep!"
The hoarse voice of the commissioner coming like the croak of a raven out of the foggy gloom had signified the hour of adjournment but the prisoner in the dock had heard nothing strange. He was too deeply wrapped up in the amazing drama that had been played to himself as the sole audience. But others had not failed to heed.
The bar had noticed it, and were discussing the matter eagerly. A few of the more thoughtful spectators marvelled as they took their way home-wards. And Lockwood Mostyn smiled as he shuffled out of court in his peculiar cat-like fashion. Men made way for him, others touched their hats to the capitalist, but he pushed by all of them. The smile on his dark features deepened. A little way down sleepy High-street a seedy-looking man, who might have been a broken-down professional man of some kind, was lounging. As Mostyn passed, the seedy man looked up with an inquiring eye.
"Yes," Mostyn muttered, "Sir Cyril is in his private room at the Courthouse. See him at once and serve the writ upon him. Then come to my house between six and seven."
The seedy man nodded and quickened his footsteps. Mostyn passed on with the air of a man who, on the whole, is pleased with his day's work.
He had a well-sounding, good old English name, but there was little of the Anglo-Saxon in Mostyn's blood. His jaw was heavy, and his face determined, but his thick lips and dark, beady eyes proclaimed the fact that Mostyn was not far remote from a Russian Jew. He was reputed to stand fairly high in the world of finance; he lived in great style at Lewton, which was within an hour of the city, and amongst a certain set he was regarded as a coming man. As to his antecedents, nobody knew or cared anything. He was one of the mysterious flowers in the garden of finance that occasionally grows into a strong plant, and just as occasionally withers away in a gaol. If Mostyn had one particular line, it was shipping.
"I must tighten the cord a little," Mostyn muttered as he walked along. "Bath has not quite the grit I gave him credit for. The fool was very near to the rocks this morning. I'll drop into the club and send him an ultimatum to come and dine with me to-night."
Meanwhile, Sir Cyril Bath had flung off his robes and wig, and was lying back in his chair with a white face and eyes that told of strange mental anguish. The usually strong man had been greatly moved by something. Unsuccessful rivals said that Sir Cyril Bath had no heart and no feeling. In ten years he had jumped from almost the outer bar into a judgeship. And there was no more miserable man in England at that moment. He saw and heard nothing, not even the loud, impatient knocking on the door. Then a handle was turned, and a seedy-looking man, with a faint, apologetic smile, crept in.
"Sorry to disturb you, my lord," he said. "But I was bound to give you this. Thank you, my lord. I wish your lordship good-day."
The man slipped silently away. Bath took up the oblong slip of paper. He opened it with something like a curse on his lips. It was a writ for nearly two thousand pounds. With a sudden frenzy of passion he tore the offending document in pieces.
"This will finish it," he groaned. "Well, there will be a pretty scandal at the bar, and a vacancy for some of those hungry fellows. Speculation, and betting, and moneylenders! A fitting epitaph for the grave of a man who aspired to be Lord Chancellor. Well!"
A porter came in with a letter, a note from Mostyn, asking, or rather commanding, Sir Cyril to dine with him that night. Perhaps Mostyn could find some way out of the difficulty. His lordship never dreamt that Mostyn had deliberately brought it about.
"My compliments to Mr. Mostyn, and I shall be very pleased," he said. "Send over to Langdean Cross for my dress clothes, and tell them to send a brougham over to bring me to Langdean Cross not later than midnight. My man is to come to the judge's lodgings."
As a matter of fact, Bath's country house was close to Lewton, a fine old place where he spent as much time as possible. For Sir Cyril was ambitious, he hoped to marry some day and found a county family. But for the expensive luxury of Langdean Cross things might have been fairly prosperous with him.
But Cyril Bath was in no mood to think of that for the present. He crossed moodily over to the judge's lodgings, where he had tea, and where he waited for his man to come and dress him for dinner. A little after seven be passed jauntily into the streets, and walked in the direction of Mostyn's house. There were many people who recognised him, and saluted him respectfully for the great and powerful, envied man that he was. Bath smiled bitterly. If those people only knew!
He came at length to Mostyn's resplendent place, with its mock Gothic lodge, its sheets of glittering glass, and its showy furniture. It was all very costly, and garish and overpowering, loud with the flavor of wealth, and varnished with the gloss that Mostyn's soul loved.
The costly, loud vulgarity of the drawing-room was chastened and toned by the wealth and beauty of the flowers there. Even the parvenu cannot debase flowers. It is impossible to have too many of them anywhere. Half-a-dozen pink-shaded lamps gave repose to the room, and toned down the pictures and the garish statuary. Evidently a feminine hand and a dainty feminine mind had been at work here. Sir Cyril looked round approvingly.
There was just the suggestion of a silken whisper, and a girl rose from a low seat by the fire. This was Mostyn's niece, Russet Ray. Nobody had ever got to the bottom of the relationship, and nobody really believed it. For Russet was gentle, and sweet, and refined, a genuine English girl with a complexion of milk and roses, and a pair of grey eyes that glowed in her face like the clear surface of a summer lake. The little mouth was firm and resolute, the low, broad forehead told of a mental power and intelligence beyond the common.
"How are you, Sir Cyril?" she asked in the sweetest possible voice. "And how is Grace? She has not been to see me for quite a time."
"I believe my ward is very well," the judge replied. "So long as she is at Langdean Cross she is perfectly happy. Most girls of her age always long for London. Where is your uncle?"
Mostyn, resplendent in glossy linen and diamond studs, solved the conundrum by appearing at the same moment. A magnificent specimen of the butler tribe stood in the doorway with the announcement that dinner was served.
The dinner was long and elaborate, a repast worthy of Lucullus. The table glittered with plate and linen and crystal, a garish display softened and chastened by the banks of feathery ferns and flowers. Everything was redolent of wealth: you could imagine the master of it all signing cheques for millions with less effort than a child over a copybook. Sir Cyril sat there quiet and moody, eating little and drinking a deal of champagne. Russet rose from her chair at length.
"I have ordered coffee in the billiard-room," she said, "where I shall leave you to talk the business you both like so much. As for me, business seems a horrid thing. But I am only a girl."
She passed out with a little laugh. Her face grew hard and grave as she found herself alone. She crept into the billiard-room, and from thence in to the dark green heart of the winter garden beyond, leaving the glass door slightly open behind her. There she sat with the air of one who listens. She had come on purpose.
Mostyn came swaggering and whistling into the billiard-room, followed by his guest. He switched on an extra electric light or two.
"Give me plenty of light," he said. "Have a cigar? Here's your coffee, and the liqueur stand is behind you. You've had a nasty jar to-day."
"It was a bit of a shock," Bath muttered. "I never expected it. I had come to Lewton to-day to take the place of my learned brother, Judge Denham. The sudden illness of his wife, you know."
Mostyn nodded and chuckled. There was a demoniac grin on his face, a look of cunning in his dark eyes.
"I knew what you had to face," he said. "And you didn't come out of it well, Bath; you're not the man I took you for."
"My good friend, if I had been recognised—"
"Pooh! There was no chance of that. Who could possibly mistake the most learned Commissioner Bath in his wig and spectacles for the reckless, rollicking—but no matter. All's well that ends well."
"But will it end well?" asked Bath, as he pulled moodily at his cigar. "Fancy me sitting there trying the very man—"
"Who put the Lone Star away," Mostyn growled. "The case is as clear as daylight; as clear as—"
"Mostyn, a blacker conspiracy against an innocent man—"
"You chattering fool!" Mostyn hissed. "Harden your heart; send him to gaol. Give him as long a term as possible—say, twenty years. A few weeks ago it was a toss-up whether we sank or swam. If I hadn't laid the plant for Cathcart, who would have stood in his place? If that cur of a Powell hadn't funked it and committed suicide, not one breath of the story would ever have become public property. And when the facts began to leak out, somebody had to suffer. And it won't be the first time that an innocent man has had to suffer. You're not going to back out now."
"It's a fearful position for a man to be in."
"Better than being in gaol," Mostyn said pointedly. "Look here, Bath. You are in a pretty tight place, and it will take all our skill to get out of it. We are both in need of money—"
"I—well, you know pretty well how I stand. And I've just been served with a writ for two thousand pounds. I've got eight days. My God! I'm afraid to think what will come at the end of that time."
Mostyn nodded. The information of this new crisis was no news to him. As a matter of fact, he had engineered it for his own ends.
"I daresay I can manage that for you," he said. "Nothing like push and audacity. Look at my house, my pictures, my jewellery. Every stick of it is mortgaged, not a bottle of wine paid for. Why, I am in debt for the very socks I wear. And out of the hundreds of pounds I owe in Lewton there is no tradesman who dares ask for his money. If they suggest payment, I bully them, and then give them large orders. And they charge me forty per cent. extra, and chuckle over the idea they are doing me. Well, if it turns out trumps they will be paid; if not, serve the greedy rascals right. But I'm not going to fail. My courage and audacity will pull me through, and you and I are going to be two of the richest men in England. We shall live to have many a laugh over this business."
But Sir Cyril shook his head moodily. Mostyn had nothing to lose. If he came to grief he could start again. Whereas the other bulked large in the public eye, he stood on a lofty pedestal, and if he fell he fell like Lucifer, never to rise again. Bankruptcy was bad enough, but only Bath knew what a disgraceful bankruptcy his would be.
"It's all very well," he muttered. "You and I have been in some queer schemes together, but none of them ever turned out well. The Lone Star business was to put one hundred thousand pounds in our pockets, instead of which we lose our original outlay and narrowly escape—"
"But we haven't lost it yet, man," Mostyn cried impatiently. "We have only to lie low and do the dignified, and the underwriters must pay in time. And your name does not appear in the business at all. It was no fault of mine that Cathcart turned traitor for his own ends, but merely a coincidence. If you will only be a man, all will be well yet, and you will finger your fifty thousand pounds before the year is out."
Bath rose and paced the room with agitated strides.
"If I only could," he muttered. "If I had that money I should be free of all the anxiety and trouble that is slowly crushing the life out of me. I should be able to look the whole world in the face instead of a disgraceful finish that would be a record in the history of the bench of judges. And never would I be tempted to speculate again."
"Not till the next time," Mostyn sneered. "You're a pretty fine lot, because you've never been found out, at least, hardly ever. But there was Judge Jefferies, and Bacon, and Walpole, and one or two more who weren't exactly angels in their way. A judge is only a man after all. If you like to fight it out you may dine in the House of Lords, or if you lie down to it you may peg out in a gutter. I've got a little plan—"
Bath groaned aloud. He hastily poured out a glass of brandy and tossed it down his parched throat. Mostyn watched him uneasily and with some contempt.
"That's not the way," he said significantly. "There's only one finish for a man who starts bracing himself up with brandy. How long can you give me?"
"An hour or more," said Bath. "I sleep at Langdean Cross to-night. My brougham comes for me at midnight. What's that noise?"
There was no noise beyond the stirring of a leaf in the conservatory. Russet crouched closer and held her breath.
* * * * *
A big clock was striking the hour of midnight as Sir Cyril slipped into his brougham. A cold stream of air came from the direction of the conservatory. The further door leading into the garden had been open for this half-hour past. A woman by the outer gate darted in the direction of Lewton High-street. The big, old-fashioned brougham lumbered along with Bath inside. He seemed to be half asleep, as was the red-faced coachman on the box. Neither of them appeared to see anything. They did not see the solitary figure of a man lounging in the shadow of the gaol. They did not see the figure dart out and swing itself on the bar behind the brougham; they had no knowledge of the white-faced, tight-lipped burden they were carrying into the heart of the night.
Chief Warder Samuel Gem was relaxing his official duties after the toils of the day. The great man was full of pleased importance. For something like eleven months in the year he was little more than a sergeant of police with the smaller criminal fry to deal with, for Lewton was not a modern gaol, and such prisoners as were tried there at the Assizes were brought from afar.
There were only a few cells there, and a determined criminal would have made light of his prison. Also Gem had but one subordinate, and he had gone home for the night, leaving Gem to look after George Cathcart and two other prisoners.
It was nearly ten, and Samuel Gem stood under the heavy stone gateway leading to his house and the prison beyond smoking a choice cigar, a present from an amiable member of the junior bar. Gem was on exceedingly good terms with himself to-night. He was thinking of his prospects and his conquests. Really, it was quite time that he got married, if only in fairness to others and less favored men. He was a little tired, too, of the old woman who cooked his food and kept his house clean, and then left him like an official Robinson Crusoe till morning.
By the time that Gem had finished his cigar he had practically made up his mind. On the whole, it should be Lottie Fair. There was a time when Gem was almost forced to believe that Lottie was laughing at him. But the last week or two she had been so different. Gem sighed gently as he thought of those bright eyes, and that bewitching little figure. And Miss Russet Ray's maid had two hundred pounds in the bank. She had told Gem so. Well, he might do worse.
It was only in accordance with the eternal fitness of things that the object of Gem's thoughts should loom in sight at that same moment. The trim little figure half paused, stopped, and shook hands.
"I declare if it isn't Mr. Gem," she said.
Gem admitted his identity quite genially. He also remarked that Miss Lottie was late to-night. Perhaps she had been out to supper, or perhaps some favored mortal of the sterner sex—
Lottie of the bright eyes was properly shocked. She had never done that kind of thing, and she never would until an engagement ring sparkled on her fair finger. In some subtle way she gave Gem to understand that he was more favored than most mortals. But then he was a superior man, and had a residence inside the precincts of the gaol. Lottie was moved by a sudden curiosity to see the inside of that grim place. To Gem's great satisfaction she was seated in his sitting room a few minutes later. In that time she had learnt as much about the gaol as Gem had done in the course of years.
"And you could let the prisoners out and nobody be any the wiser?" she asked.
With a Burleigh-like nod Gem admitted that such was the case.
He looked down admiringly into Lottie's bright eyes. She was very close to him; she was deeply interested. In an absent-minded way Mr. Gem slipped his arm around the girl's slender waist. Lottie blushed rosily.
"It's easy, but dull," Gem said. "If I had a wife now! Lottie, I've been thinking a good deal about you lately."
"Have you?" Lottie asked, with a tender smile. "I don't fancy I could live here, Samuel—I mean Mr. Gem. A little place in the country now. If we'd got another five hundred pounds!"
"Ah!" Gem sighed. "If ifs and ans were pots and pans!"
Lottie sat up suddenly. Her eyes were gleaming, a bright red spot burned on either cheek. From her pocket she produced a crackling white packet, and proceeded to display five one-hundred pound Bank of England notes before Gem's dazed and astonished eyes. Visions of a cottage with roses on it, dreams of a cow, and pigs, and prize poultry danced before Gem's mental vision. He felt that he had never loved with a pure and genuine and disinterested passion till now.
"All that yours," he gasped. "What a darling."
He bent over and sought Lottie's coy lips. They were not withheld.
"It isn't mine," she whispered; "it's yours. You have only to do one little thing and the notes are your own. And then you will be able to take that cottage you told me about."
Gem could say nothing for a moment.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked hoarsely.
"To give one of your prisoners the key of the street for an hour or two. Don't stand staring at me like that. It's Mr. George Cathcart that I want you to be kind to."
"It can't be done," Gem said unsteadily.
Lottie's bright eyes filled with tears. She murmured that all her hopes were shattered. Meanwhile the white, crisp banknotes stared into Gem's fascinated eye from the table. Dare he risk it? Was it not possible that the prisoner might come back again? If not, he would lose his pension, but he would still have his five hundred pounds and the cottage.
"It's like a bit from one of them novels," he murmured. "Sort of persecuted hero. If I only felt certain that chap would come back—"
Miss Farr cast herself into Gem's arms. She carried the fortress with a rush. It was not the first time that a great man has been led by a pretty woman. Lottie was sobbing on his shoulder, but there was a smile on her face.
"Stay here till I come back," Gem said. "I never saw such a girl. Get round a judge almost, you would."
Lottie rose as Wellington might have done before the Guards at Waterloo, for the field was won. She could not stay another moment, indeed she had stayed already too long. If folks only knew, she would never hold up her head in Lewton again. She wiped her eyes, blew a kiss to Gem, and was gone like a playful zephyr before he could say another word.
Once in the dark and deserted street Lottie picked up her dress and flew. Outside the gates leading to Mostyn's house a figure accosted her.
"Well?" the other girl whispered eagerly. "Have you done it?"
"The job is done, Miss Russet," Lottie said breathlessly. "It took a little longer than I expected; dear Samuel is so slow. But he is very fond of me, and I should be sorry to get him into trouble."
"Heaven reward you for what you have done to-night," Russet Ray said. "Lottie, you must go back and watch. You must see that I am not missed. What time will George—Mr. Cathcart—be free?"
"At the time you suggested, miss. Just before midnight."
"Then I am going as far as the gaol. I cannot sleep to-night until I have seen George. I must comfort him. I must let him know that I am still true and loyal to him. I must hear his voice and feel the clasp of his hand again. You can sit up for me, and let me in when I come back. Tell my uncle that I have gone to bed with a headache."
"Better let me go and see the gentleman," Lottie suggested.
"Oh, I cannot," Russet cried. "There are things he must be told that I cannot confide to anybody. And it may be years before I shall see him again. If his enemies triumph, I want him to feel that I am still true, and that I am still waiting for him. Hark! A quarter to twelve. Go up to the house, I must fly. Go, Lottie."
Russet flashed away into the darkness, and, somewhat unwillingly, Lottie made her way up the drive.
"I'm rather fond of Samuel," she murmured; "but I don't fancy that I shall ever care for him so much as that!"
* * * * *
Somebody else heard the quarter before midnight strike besides Russet. The heavy tones of the bell came to the ears of the prisoner as he sat on the edge of the bed. For some three hours sleep had been merciful to him. Then he had come to his senses again: he recollected the scene in court, and the man with the tarry nails, as one recalls a vivid dream. Would that come all right, or was that only some delusion? But no sane man would be guilty of a hoax like that.
And if he were free for a few hours after midnight, where was he to go? and what was he to say? He could hear no sound of life in the prison. Perhaps the scheme had been detected, and promptly nipped in the bud. The place was as quiet as the grave. And there was the hour of midnight at last, midnight and nothing else. George felt his heart sink within him. Nothing was going to happen after all.
Stop! Was that a footstep? Surely, yes. Another and another, the rattle of a key in a distant lock, the sullen clanging of a metal door. Nearer and nearer came the footsteps, a lantern shone brilliantly into the cell, and a hoarse voice addressed George.
"Come this way," the voice whispered. "Quick! Ask no questions. Go on till you come to the house outside the walls."
Cathcart obeyed in a kind of dazed way. Presently he stood by the great entrance gates, which were ajar.
"Out you go," the voice whispered. "Back at six sharp, and give three knocks on the door. I'm taking a big risk, and I don't want to get myself into trouble. Lord, when I think that you might die before morning, or get run over, or break a leg. I'm a mass of sweat from head to foot at the mere idea of my folly. It's all along of them confounded women, and the scrapes they get us into. Just you hurry off before I change my mind, and haul you back again."
George slipped through the narrow slit into the deserted street. There was not a light to be seen anywhere. It seemed so strange to be free again. There was an impulse to fly and put as wide a gap between his foes and himself as possible. Why should he remain where it was certain that the net would close about him?
He put the idea from his mind as disloyal to those good and true friends who were so eager to help him. He looked up and down the road for a sign of somebody who was to come and direct him as to the use he was to make of his liberty. He could see nothing but a girl coming down the street. The girl stopped.
"George," she whispered. "George, don't you know me?"
A hoarse, stifled cry burst from the man's lips. He jumped forward and caught the girl in his arms.
"Darling," he whispered. "Oh, my darling little girl! What good angel from Heaven sent you to me, dear Russet?"
Everything was forgotten in that moment. Russet clung to her lover, her eyes were on his face, her arms about his neck as if she could never let him go again. They were no longer standing alone in the midnight in a deserted street—they might have been in some paradise for all they knew or cared. It was a long time before either of them spoke. Cathcart could feel the girl's heart beating against his own, her warm breath was on his cheek, the pressure of those soft arms was infinitely soothing. The gaol was close behind him, but he felt the shadow no longer.
"Russet, where did you come from?" George asked.
"From no great distance," the girl answered. "I have been away in Paris, and only heard of your trouble a day or two ago. Then I returned to my uncle's house at Lewton, only to find that you were to be tried here. My uncle is Mr. Lockwood Mostyn, remember."
"Your uncle is remotely connected with my trouble, dearest. But as yet I am utterly bewildered. This morning it seemed as if I had been absolutely deserted. Then all at once friends spring up in every direction. Russet, who is the brown-faced man with the tarry thumbs?"
"My dearest boy, I have not the slightest idea what you mean!"
Cathcart proceeded to explain, Russet following with rapt attention. Some great force was working on the side of the injured man, but the mystery only deepened in the telling. The man was a barrister beyond doubt, but why had he played so daring a game?
"It must be the stranger who wrote me an anonymous letter last week," Russet said thoughtfully. "It was a typewritten letter, and spoke of the relationship existing between you and me. In the letter were Bank of England notes to the value of five hundred pounds. My maid, Lottie Fair, was to make herself agreeable to Samuel Gem, the warder in charge here, who, as the writer said, greatly admired Lottie. And Lottie was to come here to-night and offer Gem the five hundred pounds to allow you freedom for a few hours. You are free, George, and I can scarcely realise it as yet, dearest. But take courage, we have a man of no ordinary mind behind us. Yet it is hard to see what use you can make of your liberty after you have been to Langdean Cross?"
"Where is that, and why am I to go?" George asked.
"I forgot," Russet replied. "Here is a slip of paper that came for you inside my letter. The paper contains instructions, evidently. Oh, I hope, I hope that you will be safe!"
George shook his head doubtfully. It seemed to him that he could not be much worse off than he was at present. He was like a castaway from a ship, with no compass to guide him and no knowledge of locality.
"And who lives at Langdean Cross?" he asked.
"Why, your Judge, Sir Cyril Bath. He had been dining with my uncle tonight. And I have heard strange things George—things so strange that I dare hardly repeat them to you. And you are to go to Langdean Cross, which looks as though our mysterious friend knows as much as we do ourselves."
"If he does not know more, I am ruined," George replied. "If you had only been in court to-day, and heard how the evidence went against me! And I am innocent. I took out the Lone Star partly as a private venture and partly as a trading concern. And they say I cast her away because I was a party to a fraud to obtain the insurance on a rotten craft, whose cargo consisted of boxes of bricks. There was foul play somewhere, the ship's charts and instruments were all wrong, and then the Lone Star was cast away. She foundered in deep water where the currents were strong so that we shall never know whether her cargo was bogus or not. The people who began to talk, and the rascal who pulled the strings, had to see to their own safety. I was to be the victim, and I am. Unless a miracle happens, I shall be back in yonder gaol to-morrow for good and all."
"Tell me about it, George."
"My darling. I cannot, for the simple reason that up to the present I am hopelessly bewildered myself. If I could only find one man, the man whom I know has played the villain. Only bring me face to face with James Stevens—"
Cathcart paused, and a steely glitter came into his eyes. His fist closed: all in imagination he had the scoundrel by the throat. Russet watched him with a sense of fear, of coming misfortune upon her. She had never seen her lover look like this before. And she knew very little about him either. Their engagement had only been a short one, and that in secret. Was it possible, after all, that George really was—
Perhaps Cathcart read something of this passing disloyalty in the girl's eyes, for he drew her almost fiercely to his side.
"My darling," he whispered hoarsely. "Heaven knows where I may be, or what may become of me before this time to-morrow. My name may be cleared by then: on the other hand, I may be deeper in the morass. But, Russet, I swear that I am innocent; I swear that my soul is as free from guilt as your pure heart. You believe me?"
Russet looked up, and her doubts dissolved in tears. It was impossible for her to meet Cathcart's clear gaze and believe him to be a scoundrel. She wound her soft arms about his neck.
"I believe you from the bottom of my heart," she said. "And others believe you too, or you would not be talking to me like this at this hour. George, I am sure this is going to be an eventful night for both of us. Before morning it is just possible the veil may be lifted. If you stand before the world a free man, come to me at once. Come and tell me everything, for the present I have to keep up a pretence before my uncle, whom I shrewdly suspect to be a bad man. But I shall be rich some day, and he has no control over my money."
"But Mr. Mostyn is a great capitalist."
"He is a pauper; nothing is paid for. He is an adventurer, who, some day, may be wealthy. For the present—What is that?"
Nothing more than footsteps flashing down the street. George drew Russet back into the shadow, where she remained but for a moment.
"It is my maid," she said. "Lottie, what is wrong?"
"You have been missed," Lottie gasped. "Your uncle says he wants to see you most particularly. I said that you were undressing, and that I would go and fetch you. Sir Cyril is just starting. Come!"
Russet murmured to George that there was no time to be lost. Yet she was loth to go, and he was loth to part with her. Lottie turned discreetly away. George caught Russet round the waist.
"Good-bye, my darling," he whispered fervently, "and God bless you. Whatever happens, one way or another. I shall contrive to let you know what happens to-night. An hour ago I was cast down in the depths of despair, now I feel ready to face the world for the sake of your love and my good name."
There was a long, silent embrace at last broken by an impatient noise from Lottie. The lovers sprang apart. There was the noise of carriage wheels in the distance. Then a brougham and pair of horses, with the lamps flashing on the silver-mounted harness, rushed by.
"Sir Cyril's carriage," Lottie said. "How fine it looks!"
Russet grasped her lover by the arm.
"After it," she whispered hastily. "You have to go to Langdean Cross tonight, and time is precious. If you hang on behind you will save an hour or more. It is too dark for anyone to see you. Go!"
With one backward glance, George rushed away. The noise of the flashing hoofs drowned his footsteps. He reached the bar of the carriage, and swung himself upon it as the lights of Lewton were fading away. The motion, the fresh air, raised George's spirits wonderfully.
"The Judge inside, the prisoner behind," he murmured. "Nothing ever like it before! I have had some strange adventures in my time, but nothing like this. And where is it all going to end?"
The brougham sped on and on into the darkness, until at length it turned into a still darker avenue, at the end of which a flare of light gleamed against the blackness of the night. Evidently his lordship had reached his destination. Cathcart dropped from his perch on to the yielding path, and stood there until his eyes began to pick out objects against the lowering sky. He crouched down under the lee of a belt of shrubs till the hall door of the mansion opened and the brougham was driven away.
A fine place, Cathcart thought; one of those stately homes that one finds nowhere outside the British Isles. But George Cathcart had not come here to admire, or gratify his curiosity. He had a shrewd idea that stern work lay before him ere morning. He fumbled in his pocket for the gold matchbox at the end of his watch-chain. Crouching still lower, he struck a match, and hastily perused the little slip of paper that Russet had handed him.
"The conservatory door on the west side of the house is locked," it ran, "and leads to the library. Enter the library boldly, and demand speech of Sir Cyril Bath. The rest depends upon yourself. You need have no fear; you will be perfectly safe. I come on the scene later on."
"Curt and to the point," Cathcart muttered. "There is nothing for it but to obey. Whatever happens, I can be no worse off than I am at present. All the same, I shall have to be careful unless I want to be ignominiously captured for a burglar."
He waited there for some time longer, until every light in the house was extinguished, save for one room which he rightly judged to be the library. As Cathcart crept cautiously across the terrace to the house, he just caught sight of a figure in evening dress writing at a table. A slight inequality of the Venetian blinds gave him this picture. Evidently his lordship was busy over his correspondence.
The light from the library dimly illuminated a long glass structure standing out at right angles from the house. George needed no guide to tell him that this was the conservatory. He crept on tip-toe to the far end.
His heart was beating a little faster now, but he had no fear. Very gently he turned the handle of the door. It yielded to his touch. A second later, and he was in the conservatory. The door from the study was open, and the place was faintly lighted. The warmth and scent and the graceful beauty of the place was not lost on George.
He crept on noiselessly and swiftly, for he could see quite plainly now. Just for a moment he stood looking into the well-lighted, luxuriously-furnished room, with the books upon the walls. He looked, too, at the grey-haired figure bent over the writing-table. There was something familiar in the figure, and yet Cathcart could not have said why. A gilt clock over the fireplace struck one.
Cathcart stepped straight into the room. His lordship looked up with a suggestion of irritation on his face.
"I told you I wanted nothing," he said. "My God!"
"I came to speak to you," Cathcart observed. "You are not well; you change color. If you are afraid, why—"
He paused, as the man opposite him rose. For the first time Cathcart had a full view of his involuntary host's face. It was white as ashes, the usually strong lips twitched like those of a scolded child, there was a deep, horrible fear in his eyes. As he would have crossed the room, Cathcart interrupted him.
"Touch that bell, and I'll kill you," he said hoarsely. "Ah, now I know why I was asked to come here. You are recognised, sir. Men call you the Honorable Cyril Bath; I prefer to call you James Stevens."
Very slowly the other man dropped into his seat. For a long time he said nothing—he could do no more than read Cathcart's face as if he were trying to peruse the latter's soul. He would have denied the thing if he could, for he had more than his fair share of courage and audacity, but he could not have spoken then to save himself from destruction.
It was not only that the man he most dreaded in the world stood before him, it was not only that Cathcart had recognised him; but it meant that a man who could escape from prison like this had powerful friends, and, moreover, friends who knew things. And Bath had his enemies.
"I recognise you now," Cathcart went on slowly. He stood there big with a sense of possession and a mastery of the situation. "I ought to have done so in court when you recognised me. You very nearly made a fine mess of it this morning, my friend. It must have been a bit of a shock to you to come hurriedly to Lewton and find in one of the prisoners the very man charged with your own crime. Fancy you trying me for that Lone Star business! Fancy my standing up in court and telling them the history of James Stevens. What a magnificent example of a double life. A puisne judge and a dashing, dare-devil criminal!"
Sir Cyril Bath found his voice at last. "How did you manage to escape?" he gasped.
"You'll have to drag along without that information," George said dryly. "Sufficient for the present that is I am here, and that I have recognised you. By the irony of fate, you are trying me for your own crime. You nearly had a fit when you saw me this morning, but when you realised that I had no grip of your identity you made up your mind to go on. Without the slightest compunction you would have sentenced me to a long term of penal servitude, nay, you would have made it as long as possible, so as to keep me out of the way. But I have powerful friends, it seems, who are likely to prove to be your equally powerful enemies."
Bath sat silently digging a pen into the blotting-pad before him.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked presently.
"I have not quite made up my mind. For the present I would be free to pursue my own way, and get to the bottom of this business. You are absolutely in my hands. And you can release me if you choose. A judge can make a jury say or do anything. To-morrow you are to sum up in my favor. You are to direct an acquittal. Do you hear?"
"Oh, I hear. I am to so bamboosle the jury that they will give you your liberty, which liberty is to be employed later on in ruining me and bringing me under the shadow of the gaol. Upon my word, Mr. Cathcart, that is a most modest request of yours."
"If you refuse, I will denounce you in open court."
"And who would believe you? I am not to be bluffed like that. Your statement would be put down as the ravings of a lunatic. If you go back to stand your trial, which you will not do—"
"As sure as there is a heaven above us. I will!"
Bath rose from his chair. He had picked up some object before him, and came towards George with a contemptuous smile. Then his whole aspect changed to one of fury.
"No, you won't," he hissed; "because of this."
A knife flashed in the air, and descended in a gleaming circle. Quick as thought Cathcart jumped back, and his fist shot out, catching Bath a staggering blow on the chin. He collapsed like an empty sack, his head coming in contact with a dull thud on the fender.
There he lay, white, still, and dead to all appearances. The whole thing was so sudden that George could not realise it as yet.
"I hope I haven't killed that blackguard," he muttered.
"I sincerely hope not," a cool voice said. "If such is the case you will have spoilt all my delicately laid plans. And that would be a pity."
Cathcart looked up to see a man in immaculate evening dress standing tranquilly before him. It was the man with the tarry thumbs.
Cathcart nodded mechanically. By this time he was beyond emotion of all kind. Nothing would have surprised him. The man with the tarry films on his nails bent over Bath with a suggestion of annoyance. From a little way off the tense silence was broken by the gentle tones of the piano. A clear voice was trying a love-song in liquid Italian.
"That was an unfortunate blow," the newcomer said.
"I prefer the misfortune to be on the other man's side," George said grimly. "It was a case of he or I. But he is not dead."
Sir Cyril moved uneasily. Cathcart propped him up in a chair. His face was deadly white, but the chest was moving regularly.
"He'll do presently," the stranger whispered. "It's very unfortunate, but I wanted to have a few words with you before you saw his lordship. If I had not been detained—But there is no time to discuss that. He's—"
The speaker paused. There was a sound of a light footstep in the corridor, the swish of silken drapery.
"Cover him," the stranger said hoarsely. "She must not see what's going on. Stand there, there, with your back to the door. Good!"
A girl came in, a pretty, fragile girl, with a white face. With a swift, furtive glance, Cathcart noted the features in a mirror over the fireplace. He crushed down the cry that rose to his lips.
"Go away, Grace," the man with the tarry thumbs said lightly. "We have a little business to settle together. I'll join you in the music-room presently."
The girl passed on, the fragment of a song still on her lips. Comedy and tragedy were very near together at that moment.
"Miss Grace Ives," Cathcart muttered. "The young lady who came out with the Lone Star to Colombo. I taught her to read the Morse alphabet and—"
"By Jove, so you did! Splendid! I'd quite forgotten that you learnt telegraphy when you were engaged in the Venezuela gun-running business. You mayn't know it, but it was I who picked you out for that job. He's coming to."
"But you're not going," George protested.
"Indeed I am. If Bath spotted me when he opened his eyes, my little scheme goes by the board. Stay where you are. You'll hear my typewriter presently. And mind you listen to it."
The speaker slipped noiselessly from the room. Sir Cyril stirred uneasily. George Cathcart looked about him in a dazed kind of way. It seemed almost impossible to believe that all this art and wealth and splendor should be the setting of a vulgar and sensational tragedy. A bunch of violets on the table made an oasis of perfume. Placed there, no doubt, by the pretty girl with the white face. Violets and murder! Oh! the thing was absolutely impossible, a figment of imagination, a dream.
But there was no dream about the wild restlessness of Bath's dark eyes; there was nothing chimerical in the clicking, clacking, of a typewriter not far off. Bath made a feeble motion in the direction of the door. George closed and locked it. He was going to play a part, but what part yet he hadn't the smallest idea.
"You nearly finished me," Bath gasped hoarsely.
"My good luck is seldom quite complete," Cathcart replied.
"You've got a bitter tongue. Come, what do you want me to do?"
Cathcart hesitated. He was waiting for inspiration. Why had the stranger gone off so suddenly? and why was he plying his typewriter in the prosaic way. The tic-tacs of the keys seemed to be playing a tune on George's brain.
Then in a flash he grasped it. The ruse was a splendid one. Any expert telegraphist can follow a message delivered by the Morse system from the sound of the transmitter alone. George was fairly expert. Gun-running required many accomplishments, and the art of tapping telegraph wires was one of them. The stranger had remembered that. He was not using the machine for writing at all. Those tic-tacs, those trills and runs of the hammers, were letters forming words. The tune on George's brain resolved itself into a quite familiar air.
"Has he come to? If so, clear your throat. Good! Keep the whip hand. Tell him he is not to show his face at Lewton to-morrow."
The message, rapped off with lightning speed, was perfectly familiar to the listener. In fact, he was listening a little too eagerly.
"You need not be alarmed," Bath said. "That is merely my friend, Douglas Renton, who, as a briefless barrister, affects literature."
"I am not in the least alarmed," Cathcart said. "What I want is this—you are to stay at home to-morrow. You have injured yourself by a bad accident. It does not require a doctor's eyes to see that you are really ill."
"And if I decline your very modest request?"
"Then I will denounce you from the dock; I swear I will. I'll tell the people there the story of James Stevens, the history of your long vacation trip, and the way I was drugged by him on two notable occasions, and the way in which I lost my ship. You would have kept out of the way yourself at Colombo if the authorities had not arrested your pair of rascally associates for another purpose, but as time was short you were forced to show your hand. Oh. I can prove all this in time."
Sir Cyril Bath drew a long breath.
"Very well," he said, "do so. You will be laughed at, your story flouted. Who ever heard of a member of a judicial bench—"
"Who is but a man, after all. You might have deemed Cardinal Wolsey above suspicion, but he wasn't. And disgrace lay before you. You speculated and gambled; you came into Lockwood Mostyn's way. So one thing led to another. But I am merely beating the air. You are not going to Lewton to-morrow."
There was another long pause, broken only by the click of the typewriter. There was another message on the way from the machine to the ears of the listener.
"Probably find obdurate. If so, ask him whether he has called at 74 Bardell-street, Pimlico, lately. Put this in a cunning way."
George cleared his throat again.
"It is useless to fight against the inevitable," he said. "I have many and powerful friends, and I am well posted. If the worst comes to the worst, I can send a message to my friends to pay a surprise visit to 74 Bardell-street, Pimlico."
A sudden cry of pain came from Sir Cyril's lips, a cry so low that the woodpecker notes of the typewriter changed to a quick staccato.
"Eh! eh! you've touched him there!" the message ran.
"I fear you are suffering," Cathcart said politely.
"Suffering! If you only knew! For the present I am crushed, beaten to my knees. It shall be as you wish, though what you gain—"
"Gain! Don't I get rid of you? Don't I ensure myself being tried by a Judge who is not interested in getting me the longest possible term of imprisonment? And afterwards—well, you will see."
Bath said nothing. There was a queer gleam in his eyes that Cathcart did not fail to note. The man was not done with yet. Once more the typewriter was busy clicking out a message.
"Your last suggestion was excellent. Don't argue any further. He will try to get you and those who helped you into trouble. Didn't I hear you lock the door a little time ago. If so, open it and leave the rest to me. Tomorrow you must be represented by a barrister. A friend of mine will call and receive instructions. He is my lawyer. They will have to telegraph for another judge, so that the proceedings will be delayed, probably taken over again entirely. Now go. And make your way back to Lewton as fast as your legs will carry you."
For the first time the typewriter ceased altogether. With a firm step Cathcart crossed to the door and opened it.
"I have no more to say," he remarked. "I shall go by the way I came. And to-morrow I shall meet your successor fearlessly. Good-night."
He vanished into the gloom of the conservatory. Bath jumped to his feet and made for the doorway. He ran almost into the arms of Douglas Renton, who came along sedately with a pile of manuscripts under his arm. Bath would have passed him, but the other detained him.
"My dear Cyril, what is the matter?" he cried in a shocked voice. "A face like ashes, and blood on your coat. A doctor, at once a doctor. Sit down."
He tugged furiously at the bell and forced Bath into a seat. With a bitter sigh of defeat Sir Cyril lay back in his chair.
A gentle scratching on the outer door of Samuel Gem's official residence caused that stern familiar to awake from fitful slumbers with a start. A slow, solemn joy glowed on his face as he saw Cathcart.
"Not that I expected you for a moment," he said with great candor. "There were fine enough promises, but to one in my position who has so fine a chance to study human nature. Well, on the whole, I shouldn't have come back—myself."
"In my case you certainly would," Cathcart said. "I'm too dead tired to argue the ethics of the case. Brush me down and lend me your blacking brushes. We don't want to excite suspicion."
Cathcart's pallet was a hard one, and none too clean; but he slept with a soundness and sweetness that fine linen often woos in vain. It was late before he woke, and Gem was standing over him. All signs of a friendly understanding had gone. Gem was in his uniform, the man merged into the official.
"Your breakfast," he said, "sent in from outside. Ham and eggs cut up small, because the regulations don't admit of knives being allowed to prisoners. Sir Cyril Bath has met with an accident, and another judge is coming by the 11.17 to take over the criminal cases. You won't be called before mid-day."
Cathcart nodded carelessly, but his heart was beating faster.
"Mr. Justice Pardon is coming here," Gem resumed: "also a Mr. Jasper Svrett is here. Says he is your lawyer from London. Like to see him, I expect?"
George Cathcart nodded again. Evidently this was the solicitor spoken of by Mr. Douglas Renton the previous evening. He came in presently, small, bland, dapper, but with the hard-looking muscles and the clear brown skin of a sportsman.
"Sorry we could not arrange the matter for you, Mr. Cathcart," as he shook hands. "If I were not more or less independent of my profession and a bachelor to boot, I may begin by saying that I know everything, even down to the events of last night."
"Then perhaps you can enlighten me, a bit," Cathcart suggested. "Why is my mysterious friend, Mr. Douglas Renton, so interested in the case?"
"Because his fortune is more or less bound up in it. Renton is a man of some considerable means: also he has a weakness for writing fiction of the adventurous type. Being a man with a conscience, he lives to study his local color on the spot. He has one or two smart steamers with a view to pearl-poaching, gun-running, and the like. He was your employer when you commanded the Gannet on that Venezuela gun-running expedition."
"I begin to see," Cathcart said thoughtfully.
"You will see more when I tell you he was owner of the Lone Star," Syrett went on. "The Lone Star was hired to a company directed by Lockwood Mostyn, and carried the valuable, highly-insured cargo that perished when, as alleged, you cast her away. Unfortunately, the Lone Star herself wasn't insured—overlooked in the press of business. All this looked very honest and straightforward. The underwriters would naturally assume that as the ship was lost, the insurance on the cargo would leave an actual loss to Mostyn and Company. But for the ugly rumor the money would have been paid long ago. Those rumors spread, and an investigation took place. Then it became necessary to find a scapegoat, and the other fellow committed suicide. Your small banking account has a mysterious credit of one thousand pounds, and amongst your papers is found a letter, from Seth Powell, the suicide, that condemns you."
"And where was that found?" Cathcart asked.
"Why, in the pocket of your bankers pass-book. The very day you sailed for Colombo you paid one thousand pounds into your bank."
"Most assuredly I did," Cathcart admitted. "But I came by it honestly."
"My dear friend, I have not the slightest doubt about it," said Syrett. "At the same time you left your passbook at the Bank. That you admit? Well, the bank people will be prepared to swear that that book was never out of their possession. And in the pocket of that bank-book is that fatal letter. As a matter of fact, I saw that letter a fortnight ago, acting on instructions from my other client, Douglas Renton."
"An ingenious conspiracy," Cathcart said bitterly.
"Ingenious, indeed!" the lawyer said, not without admiration. "Here is the case for the prosecution, as foreshadowed before the magistrate, in a nutshell, Lockwood Mostyn and Company are an honorable firm, who hire the Lone Star, and send you out in her with a mixed cargo for Colombo. From thence or thereabouts, you bring back a valuable cargo that has been heavily insured. On your way back you cast away the Lone Star. Why? Because you and Seth Powell have conspired to steal and sell that very valuable cargo—represented in the hold of the Lone Star by so many dummies—and put the proceeds in your pocket. Everything points to this conclusion. And the real culprits jeer out at your expense."
Cathcart nodded. He was perfectly alive to his peril.
"All the same," he said, thoughtfully, "I don't quite see why Mr. Renton should go out of his way to help me to this extent."
"My dear sir, in the first place he knows you to be innocent. No need to mention recent happenings, but the events of last night prove him to be correct. Also Mr. Renton has an idea that may or may not prove correct later on. He might have managed to set at the truth last night, but, unfortunately, the trend of events prevented him from priming you as he had intended. Still, in the short time at our disposal, we have done fairly well indeed. The barrister I have instructed to appear for you, has a pretty surprise in store for the prosecution."
"Do you mean to say that they can prove my innocence?" Cathcart asked eagerly.
"On the whole, I should rather say not," Syrett said coolly. "But it will be a staggerer for the Crown, and in all human possibility the jury will disagree as to their verdict. That will mean a new trial; also it will mean that we can get bail. And long before you stand at the bar again your innocence will be established. And now I am going to ask you some pretty pertinent questions."
For an hour or more Cathcart was a patient witness in the hands of his own lawyer. After that there came a plump little man with a shrewd eye and wide mouth, who appeared to be one Morton Smyth of the Junior Bar, who had been retained for the defence by Syrett. The second hurried conference was barely finished before Cathcart was once more called to take his trial.
The little court-house was again crowded to suffocation. Public interest had not decreased owing to the news that Sir Cyril Bath had met with a nasty accident and, therefore, would be debarred from his duties for some little time to come. Lockwood Mostyn scowled as he heard the news, his ragged nails bit into his horny palm, a spirit of restless anticipation possessed him. Was his ally going to throw him over after all? If Bath hesitated now it would be fatal.
But the prisoner was in a different mood altogether. For the first time he had hope on his side. He looked steadfastly round the crowded court house, he bowed to the judge, who was fussing with his predecessors notes. Then the trial began over again. One witness after another was called, and gave his evidence anew, and one after another stepped down from the box without a sign from Mr. Morton Smyth, who appeared to be deeply engrossed in drawing caricatures on his blotting-pad.
Up to a certain point the trial was getting along smoothly. As on the previous day, the trial was telling against the prisoner. Yet from time to time the counsel for the Crown glanced uneasily at his opponent. Presently there stepped into the box an official from Cathcart's bank, who deposed to the lodging of some one thousand pounds in money, and the finding of the letter from the suicide Seth Powell in the pocket of the passbook. All this was new evidence, and the spectators followed it breathlessly. The prisoner listened with a smile, but it was the smile of bravado—or so those close to him imagined. The chain seemed to be complete. The letter was read aloud by the prosecuting counsel, and then handed to the judge. For the first time Morton Smyth appeared to be interested.
"Does my friend wish to cross-examine?" the Crown counsel asked.
Morton Smyth jumped to his feet and pushed his gown aside. There was just one of those dramatic little pauses that always tell the spectators in a magnetic way that great events are going to happen.
"Has my learned friend any further witnesses to call?" Smyth asked.
"No," was the reply; "this is my last. The rest would be superfluous."
"They would indeed," Morton Smyth said dryly. "Kindly hand me that letter." Over the hush of expectation the crackling of the paper could be distinctly heard.
For some time Morton Smyth held the letter in his hand, examining it carefully. There was just the suspicion of a smile over his boyish features. Then he turned to the bank official, smart, crisp, and alert, waiting to give his evidence and get the ordeal over as soon as possible. Here was a witness who had not the faintest interest in the case, and who could be trusted to speak with the greatest impartiality—a witness distinctly to be on good terms with.
"Now, sir," Smyth began in his blandest manner. "Will you be so good as to produce the prisoner's pass-book."
The small parchment-covered book was handed in, and the entries scanned by Smyth.
"Please to take that in your hand," he said. "I am assuming, as a matter of course, that all the entries are correct. On the 26th of July there is a credit of one thousand pounds to the prisoner. How was that paid?"
"It was paid in notes by Mr. Cathcart himself."
"Was the money paid to you?"
"Not to me personally. I am not at the counter. But Mr. Butler, the assistant cashier, is here, and he will tell you that he received the money."
"Quite so, quite so. My lord, we are quite prepared to admit that the prisoner visited the bank on the day in question, and made the one thousand pounds payment personally. The pass-book was left at the same time."
"That is so," the witness replied. "The pass-books are my responsibility. Mr. Cathcart's was handed to me to make up, with instructions that it was to be kept till called for, as Mr. Cathcart was leaving England immediately."
"And from that day to this the passbook has not been out of your possession?"
"Well, it has not been out of the possession of the bank. It was locked up in one of the safes with scores of others."
"That is the usual thing, I presume?"
"Very frequently with private customers who only check their pass-books at intervals. It greatly helps us to have the pass-books frequently."
"I can quite understand that," counsel muttered. "Did you examine the pocket in the book after or before you had it made up?"
"No, I had no idea any document was there. After the prosecution was established, the authorities asked for a copy of the prisoner's account."
"Which you declined to give, of course?"
"Certainly. It was not till the end of December that the account was disclosed to the prosecution on a judge's order. An inspector from Scotland Yard called to see the account, and at his request the pass-book was handed to him."
"The pass-book having then been in uninterrupted possession of the bank for upwards of four months?"
"Yes, sir. Seventeen weeks, to be particular."
"Um. Now, is it possible that, during those seventeen weeks, the book might have been tampered with? Let me put you a case. The theory of the defence in this case is one of conspiracy. Supposing I had desired to convey this letter to the pocket of the pass-book where it was found. Supposing I had corrupted some junior clerk in the bank with a view of surreptitiously smuggling this letter to its destination. Could it be managed without difficulty?"
"It is not very probable," the witness said stiffly. "But, if we grant your dishonest person, it could easily have been done."
"Done with the greatest ease, in fact?"
"Quite so, sir. Pass-books are constantly required, and a mere junior in the daytime would have access to the safe."
"In fact, under the circumstances, a junior might have walked off with the prisoner's book and kept it a day or two?"
"Under the circumstances, he could."
"And nobody have been any the wiser?"
Smyth bowed and smiled. The counsel for the Crown nodded as if indicating that his learned friend had scored a point. Very rapidly Smyth went on with his case. The audience was deeply interested. They were vividly following the story of the suicide Powell, the man who could have thrown so much light on the mystery. There was a strong human interest here.
The witness had known Seth Powell quite well by sight. He was an employee in the house of Lockwood Mostyn and Co., and had an account with the bank. The big firm in question had an account there also. Smyth elicited this fact with a careless flung query and a little smile that puzzled his opponent.
"What has become of Seth Powell's balance?" he asked.
The witness replied that it stood for the present pending another claimant.
"But you have no proof of the man's death," Smyth protested.
"Well, yes. He committed suicide. He was afterwards identified."
"Stop!" Smyth cried. "I am greatly interested in this point. It is absolutely necessary to my case to know by whom the dead man was identified."
"I will make my friend's mind easy on that score," the Crown counsel drawled. "The identification was made by Mr. Lockwood Mostyn himself. You will find his evidence given before the coroner."
Smyth clicked his lips together. He intimated that the witness might stand down for the present, and that he should like Mr. Lockwood Mostyn to be sworn.
Lockwood Mostyn came pompously into the box. He had very little to tell, but that very little was to the point. It was about the time that the insurance company made demur over payment of the Lone Star insurances that his suspicions were aroused. He had made secret investigations which pointed to Seth Powell as being implicated. Many searching questions were asked him, and he became alarmed. All the same, he promised to clear up the matter the next morning. From that moment he was not seen in the office again. At the end of a few days he (witness) happened to read the description of a body that had been found in the Thames. It tallied very much with a description of the missing man. A visit to the mortuary established the fact.
"Seth Powell, beyond a doubt?" Smyth asked carelessly.
"Absolutely," Mostyn replied. "Powell had no friends, and I paid for the funeral."
"He was not identified by anyone but yourself?"
"There was no need. He lived at Forest Gate in rooms that were all the cheaper because the landlady was nearly blind and Powell had to do most things for himself. He was a man of an exceedingly saving disposition."
Smyth waved the witness aside. He had no further questions to ask. The case for the prosecution had closed, and it was felt by the great majority of the spectators that the prisoner's counsel had an exceedingly uphill task. Still, the more observant of the audience did not fail to notice his cheerfulness.
"I am going to make no lengthy speech, my lord," he said: "and I am only going to call one witness. Acting on instructions from Mr. Douglas Renton, the owner of the ill-fated Lone Star, a solicitor, whom I need not name, examined the prisoner's passbook, and also had an opportunity of seeing the letter which has told so fatally against my client.
"Now, if that letter is genuine, my client's case is hopeless. But suppose that I can prove that letter to be something in the nature of a forgery? Suppose that I can prove beyond a demonstration that that letter, purported to be deposited in the bank by my client himself before his fatal voyage, was placed in the pocket of the passbook quite recently? My lord, my witness, Mr. Wallace Chattock, is a well-known heraldic stationer. When you have heard what he has to say, you will be forced to the conclusion that there is a deep conspiracy somewhere. Call Mr. Wallace Chattock."
The audience thrilled. Something dramatic was coming. A slight dark man now came into the box with cheerful assurance.
After the first flutter and stir of excitement, the audience fell under the spell of silence that precedes any great play of the emotions. Smyth handed the fateful letter up to the dark little man above him.
"You need not read the body yet," he said. "Merely tell me the date."
"The date on the letter is July 25 of last year," the witness replied.
"Very good. Presumably, Mr. Seth Powell wrote that letter to my client on the 25th of July of last year, and then he was mad enough to place the same in the pocket of his pass-book so that sooner or later it must tell against him. A strange thing for a sane man to do. Now, please examine the texture of the paper."
The witness held the paper to the light.
"Have you seen any paper like it before?" Morton Smyth asked.
"Not just like it," the witness replied. "There is no date on the sheet, but the water mark—a small griffin over the initials J.P. is the mark of Cottesham Mills, Kent. The paper is plain grey, but it has a ribbed texture that renders it peculiarly suitable for the artistic printing of heraldic colors. This paper was designed by me, and specially prepared by the Cottesham Mill. No other stationer in the country has that paper."
"Very good. It has become a popular paper, I suppose?"
"Well, it may in time. But people are very conservative, and prefer something plainer."
"You are absolutely certain that nobody can obtain that paper but yourself?"
"Good again. How many customers have you for this particular paper?"
"Only one up to now, I am sorry to say. That customer had a large quantity with his arms in color. He was so pleased that I supplied him with a further quantity for private business purposes."
"Will you kindly tell the court the name of your customer?"
"Mr. Lockwood Mostyn. I understand he is well known here."
A murmur of excitement followed this startling evidence. Mostyn started up angrily in his seat as if to say something, and then apparently thought better of it.
"Now I begin to understand," Morton Smyth said quietly. "Seth Powell did not want to commit himself too far. It was not wise to write that incriminating letter on his employer's official paper, so he took the sheet from Mr. Mostyn's case and wrote on that."
"So I should imagine," said the witness. Mostyn smiled again. The letter was handed to the bench, and from thence to the jury, and back again to the counsel. Mostyn, in turn, handled and criticised it.
"We admit the paper," the Crown counsel said. "Stolen from Mr. Mostyn, no doubt."
"I am exceedingly obliged to you," Morton Smyth said dryly.
Meanwhile the witness looked puzzled, as well he might. "My lord, the paper is admitted to be stolen from Mr. Mostyn's private office. On it Seth Powell is alleged to have written the letter, dated 25th of July. Now, Mr. Chattock, please tell the court the date when the first parcel of that peculiar paper left Cottesham Mills.
"Why, I never designed it till September," the witness cried. "They made a mistake at the mill with the first two reams, it was late in October before the first box was despatched to Mr. Mostyn's residence."
A loud cry burst from the spectators. With a dramatic gesture Morton Smyth threw the letter on the table before him.
"This precious document is a clumsy forgery," he exclaimed. "There were others in deadly fear of the truth coming out besides the suicide Seth Powell. The author of this vile thing stole the paper from Mr. Mostyn's private office, never heeding what it would lead to, or, if he gave the matter a moment's thought, would imagine that Seth Powell would get all the credit. I have no further word to say save that the prosecution has broken down. Even if my client should be held guilty, the evidence of a vile conspiracy cannot be wiped away. My learned friend can take any course he pleases."
A burst of applause followed this speech. The sudden revulsion in favor of the prisoner was marvellous. A searching cross-examination of the witness did not shake his evidence in the least. Then, without heat or passion, the prosecution proceeded to sum up against the prisoner.
But though the earlier evidence against Cathcart was strong, all the sting had gone out of the charge. The great coup of the prosecution had broken down. There was some slight applause as the speech was finished, but all eyes were for Morton Smyth.
"I have no defence to make, my lord. The prosecution has kindly proved my case for me. I am prepared to agree that much damning evidence still stands against my unfortunate client. At the same time, I have proved that his enemies have conspired against him in the most dastardly fashion. They discovered the lodgment of one thousand pounds in his bank, and then they proceeded to make use of the fact by concocting that absurd letter and secretly conveying it to the pocket of the passbook. My lord, we are not going to take the trouble to prove whence that honest money came from. All I ask the jury to do is to mark their sense of the case in a proper and honorable manner."
"An unusual course, Mr. Smyth," the judge murmured.
"An unusual case, my lord," was the quick response. "Give my client the benefit of the doubt, and we will get to the bottom of the business yet."
The judge proceeded to sum up. On the whole, he was against the prisoner. The evidence as to the casting away of the Lone Star was very strong. But on the subject of the letter, his lordship was very severe. Finally, the jury trooped out. The audience waited anxiously for the best part of an hour before a message came that the jury could not agree. Another anxious hour passed, a trivial case attracted scant attention, and then another message from the jury to the same effect. Morton Smyth smiled and rubbed his hands, and the prisoner took fresh heart of grace. Somewhat impatiently the judge desired the presence of the jury.
"You must come to some decision," he said sternly. "If it is a question of law—"
"It's on the facts, my lord," the foreman said. "We are hopelessly divided. Six of us are for acquittal, and the other six are for a modified verdict of guilty with a strong recommendation to mercy on the grounds of a partial conspiracy."
"You are discharged," the judge said curtly. "The prisoner will be put back pending a new trial. You may suggest bail, Mr. Smyth?"
"My lord, I demand it as a right," he cried. "The verdict is tantamount to one of not guilty. If ever there were a case for bail, this is one. And we are prepared to offer bail to anything up to ten thousand pounds."
"Two of five hundred pounds, and the prisoner in one thousand pounds," his lordship said. "Let the recognisances be entered into. Gentlemen, you are discharged."
Cathcart listened in a dazed kind of way. He heard subdued cheers in court, he caught sight of Lockwood Mostyn's sullen, uneasy, anxious face. Somebody touched him on the shoulder and told him he was free. Once more he was breathing the air of heaven. Outside the mob cheered him again. Mr. Jasper Syrett took him by the arm, and piloted him across to his hotel, where he had ordered dinner in a private room.
"Just what I expected," the little man said briskly. "This gives us a couple of months' freedom at the very least. And by the end of that time it will go hard if we don't get to the bottom of this black business. Have a cigar?"
Cathcart lay back in the full enjoyment of interdicted tobacco.
"It feels like a dream as yet," he said. "There was only one thing I recall vividly, and that was the expression of Mostyn's face."
"I saw it," Syrett chuckled. "He's at the bottom of it. He wrote that letter. He got it smuggled into the pocket of the pass-book. It was the only private paper handy, and, naturally, he had no idea of being bowled out like that. The mere fact of Seth Powell using his paper would have excited no suspicion. It was very clever of Morton Smyth to convey a certain feeling of sympathy for Mostyn. And it was very clever, too, the careless way he elicited the fact that Mostyn alone identified the body of Seth Powell. But we shall open his eyes presently. Here's dinner."
It was a pleasant dinner, and Cathcart enjoyed it amazingly. He listened in a dreamy way over his cigar to the chatter of his companion.
"What's the next move?" he asked.
"Well, you and I are going to London. Do you recollect 74 Bardell-street? It was the mention of that house that had such an effect on Bath the night before last."
"I recollect it. What about it?"
"Well, we are going to make a call there to-morrow. And I rather flatter myself I am going to give you a dramatic surprise."
Mr. Samuel Gem touched his hat respectfully to the passing figure of George Cathcart, and grinned under cover of the darkness. Gem's philosophy was of the comfortable order just now. Fate had been very kind to him. Like some other people who do wrong things, the resulting benefits were material. He was much nearer now to the realisation of his fondest dreams. The country cottage and Miss Lottie Farr were getting closer.
"It's a funny world," Gem said profoundly. "A day or two ago that was my prisoner. To-day he's a gentleman at large and the victim of a scandalous conspiracy. All the same I don't want to see him again. Reminds me too strongly of an incident in my professional career as is best forgotten. Funny thing, as my old friend Seth Powell should have been mixed up with—Hullo!"
Miss Farr emerged smilingly from the darkness. Gem was enjoying an unusual cigar under the shadow of his porch.
"That's a nice way to speak to a lady," the girl said.
"Exclamation of joy and surprise," Gem said hastily. "Lottie, there's a cottage out Farncombe way that will just suit us."
Lottie responded frigidly that her mind was very far from cottages. There was much to be done before she could revel in Sylvan joys. She permitted Gem to salute her respectfully—indeed, she returned his caress. But if Samuel Gem imagined that she was here at this time of the night for the academic pleasure of his company, he was greatly mistaken.
"My mistress is in trouble," she said. "Between ourselves, it's a case between Mr. George Cathcart and herself. And she wants to see Mr. Cathcart at once. I've got a note for him, and you're to take it to the Massingham Arms without delay. I couldn't think of anyone else."
Gem chipped on his hat hurriedly.
"Give it to me," he said. "Why, Mr. Cathcart's just gone down the street in the direction of your place. I'll catch him up. But, Lottie, I can take that cottage out Farncombe way, can't I?"
"Who am I to stop you?" Lottie asked carelessly.
"Well, you know what I mean. Shall I take it? There's a greenhouse and a scullery."
Miss Farr melted under these wiles. Perhaps the greenhouse touched a tender chord.
"Oh, you men!" she sighed. "Samuel, you are a fool. Do you suppose I let any man kiss me unless—Good-night."
"I'll take that cottage to-morrow," Sam said, ramming his hat down with an air of decision. "There's my man. Good-night, sir. I'm a bit out of breath with running, but I've got a note for you. Beg pardon, sir, but I used to be at school along of that Seth Powell."
"I congratulate you," Cathcart said grimly. "And what sort of a character did he bear in those early days?"
"Always a sneak, sir, always a slimy snake. He robbed a friend of mine of four pound and arranged it so that the blame should fall on me. I hoped to have got a chance to punch his head for him, but we can't have everything."
George Cathcart tore open his letter impatiently. It was just a few lines from Russet asking him to meet her by the lodge gates at ten, if possible. George smiled joyfully. In the hope of seeing Russet he was at the moment approaching the flamboyant gates of Mostyn's house. Inside the grounds were large and spacious, and it was quite dark. Cathcart slipped inside.
Presently he saw a slender figure move against the darker background of a belt of firs. He ventured on a cautious whistle. A timid little voice answered him. In the background the windows of the house were ablaze with light. A big lamp streamed in the great porch.
"Russet," George whispered, "I have just got your note."
She came to him with a glad cry. Hard by there was a little arbor where they could sit unseen and yet see everybody coming from and going towards the house. It was a little time before either of them spoke.
"I'd give a deal to see your face, Russett," George said at length. "I suppose it would not be safe to light a match?"
"I should disappear like a fairy in the story," Russet laughed. "Oh, George, what a happiness it is to know that you are free again."
"I don't quite realise it yet, dearest. This morning and to-night!—they seem to be years apart. But I am not out or the wood yet."
"But you are going to be. You have powerful and clever friends. Lottie was in court and told me everything. I did not dare go myself. I waited at the window, and Lottie was to wave a white handkerchief if you were free. It seemed years before she came. Then I—well, I cried, George. But it was hard work."
"What, crying?" George asked.
"Goose! I don't mean that, of course. I mean to be nice to Mr. Mostyn at dinner. Of course he wrote that letter."
"No doubt about it, though it is not our cue to let him know that he is suspected. But how did he get it in the pocket-book?"
"George, I fancy I can tell you. There is a poor lady here who is grateful to Mr. Mostyn for looking after her money. I am afraid she will not be so grateful when the crash comes. She thinks it so good and noble of him to busy himself over her paltry affairs. And I have tried to warn her as far as I dare."
"But, Russet, what has this got to do with—"
"I'm coming to that. Mrs. Stennard has a son—a weak, pretty boy, who Mr. Mostyn got into the bank—your bank, too. You can imagine what would happen to a lad alone in London for the first time. I fancy it was betting that started it. Anyway, Raymond Stennard was here early in the summer one Saturday night to dinner. He seemed to be very white and miserable, and I heard some desultory talk afterwards as to the folly of betting, and something about seeing the silly boy through for the sake of his mother. I thought very little about it at the time, but when Lottie told me all about that letter it came back to me with crushing force."
"What a clear, business head!" George smiled.
"My dear boy, I live in an atmosphere of business," Russet replied. "You must agree with me that I have made a most important discovery. When Mr. Mostyn came home to dinner I was certain of it. Never before have I seen him in such a savage, sullen temper. And with it all he was frightened. The butler brought him a telegram, and his hand shook as he read it. Then some man who refused to give his name came to see him on business. His face was white as the tablecloth. Oh, George, you must make haste and get to the bottom of this business. If you only knew how I loathed staying in this house—I am as miserable as Grace Ives."
"Courage," George whispered, as he kissed the quivering lips. "A little longer and you shall be free. Grace Ives is Sir Cyril Bath's ward, is she not? Do you know I met her in Colombo? Why is she miserable?"
"She is miserable because of Douglas Renton. They were nearly engaged at one time. And now Douglas Renton hardly speaks to her."
"Meaning that they have quarrelled, I suppose?"
"I don't fancy that is it. I fancy Douglas Renton is playing a game. He is on your side, I know. He knows all the villainy that has been brought against you, and yet he poses as a friend of Sir Cyril Bath. That is why he is cold to Grace. It would never do for Sir Cyril to know that Mr. Renton is in love with his ward."
"But what is Renton doing at Langdean Cross?"
"Ostensibly he is designing a new yacht for the judge. And Sir Cyril encourages him there because Mr. Renton is under his eye. I try and think it all out sometimes till my head swims. Grace is a dear girl and my friend, but she is a trifle too impulsive, and this is probably why Douglas Renton disguises his feelings. But I am quite sure he will tell you everything."
"I'm going to be told," Cathcart said thoughtfully. "To-morrow our plan of campaign begins in earnest. I leave for London with Mr. Syrett, and I will keep you posted with what goes on. I suppose it would be safe to send you a letter under cover to Lottie Farr. Or would that be too near home?"
"Samuel Gem," said Russet. "That has all been arranged. What is that?"
The sounds of wheels came up the drive. A shabby-looking cab stopped before the great portico, and a figure clad in furs stepped out. In the strong light the figure stood out clearly. Russet grasped George's arm.
"Sir Cyril Bath," she whispered. "I recognise his stoop. If I were only invisible!"
Cathcart gazed intently at the muffled figure on the doorstep. The man in the fur coat did not ring the bell, but walked straight into the house. "It seems hardly possible," George said. "Syrett told me just now that Sir Cyril Bath was very ill indeed, confined to his bed, and very feverish. Those rascals must be greatly alarmed for him to take such a step as that."
Russet was shaking with excitement. She was vaguely alarmed.
"Perhaps I am mistaken," she said. "Mr. Mostyn has all kinds of strange visitors at all kinds of strange hours. His intimates always go into the smoking-room. Sometimes it is possible to see into that. Wait a moment."
Russet glided away into the darkness. She was gone so long that George was getting uneasy. Presently she returned.
"I've had a peep," she said, "but, unfortunately, I have not learnt anything. The visitor is sitting before the fire with his big coat on. As his back was toward me, I could make nothing of him. But Mr. Mostyn is storming up and down the room in a fine temper. As the windows are of plate-glass I couldn't catch a word they said. I wonder—"
Russet paused just for a moment.
"I am all impatience," George said. "Pray go on."
"You must get to Langdean Cross," Russet said decidedly. "Goodness knows what those two are plotting—that is, assuming that the newcomer is Sir Cyril Bath. I think Mr. Renton ought to know. If you could manage to see him to-night—"
Cathcart made no reply for the moment. Renton was at Langdean Cross as he knew. And, if Russet's surmise was correct, the sooner Renton knew the better. But at this hour of the night the thing was not quite so easy as it looked. Moreover, it was more than possible that Bath had his spies. He might have some confidential valet or retainer of that kind who knew everything. And if this servant recognised Renton's visitor as George Cathcart, no end of mischief might be done. Still, it might be possible to see Renton and himself remain unseen.
"I'll go," he said. "I may fail, but I think Renton ought to know this. I can prowl like a thief about the house and try to locate my man that way. It's not a very pretty method of going to work, but we must fight these rascals with their own weapons."
A moment later and Cathcart was striding along resolutely in the direction of Langdean Cross. The clock of Lewton was striking the hour of eleven as he crossed the bridge and emerged into the country. It was nearly an hour later before he scrambled over the fence surrounding the house, and crept cautiously along till he came at length to the edge of the lawn.
The house was practically in darkness. A dim light was burning in one of the best bedrooms—doubtless the room occupied by the judge himself. He might have been there in person: on the other hand, the light might have been a mere blind. So far as Cathcart could judge, the rest of the household was fast asleep. If this were really a fact, he had had his journey for his pains.
But George Cathcart was not the man to be put off so easily. He made a circuit of the house till at length he emerged by the conservatory, by means of which he had entered on a certain memorable occasion. Here was a small room, from whence a light gleamed behind the Venetian blinds. A muffled tapping noise came from the room. Here was a piece of good fortune. Beyond doubt Renton was working at his typewriter.
For a long time the tapping went on, and then there came a pause and the striking of a match. With a pencil Cathcart ticked off his name softly on the window-pane in the dash-and-dot telegraphic code.
At any rate, he would be on the safe side. If it were not Renton at the typewriter, the person inside would glean nothing from those quick little ticks. But all doubts were set at rest as the typist ticked off a reply.
"That you, Cathcart, of course. One to you for that signal. It's just as well for you to be on the safe side, as I'm being watched. Go and stand under the big cedar on the lawn, and I'll be with you presently. For reasons which I shall have to explain I shall have to come by way of the window."
George Cathcart retired quietly to the shelter of the cedar tree. He could just catch a glimpse of Renton as he pulled aside the blind and softly opened the window. The sash was evidently well oiled, for it gave no sound whatever. Then the window was lowered again, and Renton came cautiously across the lawn.
"In the first place, let me congratulate you," he said as he shook hands warmly. "For obvious reasons I couldn't do so in court; indeed, I deemed it best to keep away. But I have been by no means idle. I shall see you in time to-morrow, though I shall not travel with Syrett and yourself. But why are you here?"
"I came here to tell you that at the present time the judge, Sir Cyril Bath, is down at Lewton closeted with Mr. Lockwood Mostyn. It may be a matter of trivial importance, but at the same time I thought that you should know it."
"Trivial importance be hanged!" Renton said with suppressed excitement. "If this is true it will confirm my reading of the enemy's next move. But it's impossible."
"Why impossible?" Cathcart asked.
"Because I saw Sir Cyril in bed not more than an hour ago. A little while later his own man Symonds said he was asleep."
"All, of which is quite compatible with my statement. Bath might have been in bed with his clothes on. What about this man of his?"
"Been with him for years. A wolf, if ever there was one. They don't suspect that I suspect anything, but Symonds is told off to keep watch upon me. That's why I locked my door just now, and why I have taken care to see the sashes of my window carefully oiled."
"That's a bit awkward," Cathcart said thoughtfully. "If Sir Cyril Bath is away, the fellow will sleep with one eye open."
"He has a room at the back of the house. At the present moment he is enjoying one of my best cigars there. Tell you what it is, Cathcart—we'll certify our suspicions, not from the inside of the house, but the outside. We'll get a short ladder from the garden, and get on to the porch that way. From there I can climb along the stone sill till I come to the window where the light is burning, which, by the way, is Bath's bedroom. At the foot of the white gate yonder is a ladder. You get it quietly into position whilst I fetch one of my tools, so that, if necessary, we can push back the window-sash."
The ladder was found without much difficulty, and erected in what George deemed to be the best workmanlike fashion. With a thin tool in his hand, Renton went up the ladder. It was perilous work creeping along the stone coping, but men accustomed to the sea made nothing of it.
The blind was down, the light within was dim. There was a slight pressure on the woodwork, and gradually the brass catch was forced back. Very silently the window was lifted, as silently the intruders stepped inside. A shaded bracket lamp filled the room with a dim thread of light.
"Nothing to be alarmed about," Renton whispered. "Look there."
He pointed to the bed. It was empty.
The two men smiled significantly at each other. Renton crossed over and tried the door. As he fully expected, it was locked on the outside. There was nothing for it but to leave the room as speedily as possible, replacing the window-catch. The ladder was once more conveyed to its place.
"We'll just smoke a cogitative cigarette," said Renton. "You've done a fine thing by coming here to-night, but unless I am greatly mistaken, you haven't finished by a long way. When my judicial friend returns, I shall be surprised if he goes quietly to bed. What a grand idea it is that you know the telegraphic code."
"Been very useful, hasn't it?" said Cathcart.
"Yes; and it's going to be more useful still," exclaimed the other. "I shall want you to stand outside the window of my little study, presently and wait for the signal. I may give it you in various ways, and I shall leave it to your own discretion to—"
"What's that?" Cathcart interrupted.
The sound of distant wheels. The wheels stopped inside the lodge gates, and a figure bent and stooping came slowly up the drive.
There was a faint rattle of a latch key, the dull closing of a door.
"I must be off at once," said Renton, "back by means of my window. Stand outside and wait. It will be dull and weary business, but your future may depend upon the extent of your patience. Good luck to you." Renton pulled down the window softly and disappeared.
Sir Cyril Bath tossed and turned on his bed, fretful, weary, worn by anxiety. At one time he had made up his mind to face the thing out. He would drag himself to Lewton, and let George Cathcart do his worst.
Who would believe the prisoner? So far as the trial had gone up to the adjournment, everything had been dead against Cathcart. Even on the evidence of the survivors of the Lone Star he must be convicted. From a careful perusal of the deposition Bath knew all that would be proved as to the Seth Powell letter. There would be no possibility of getting out of that. How the letter had found its way into Cathcart's pass-book Bath had still to learn.
He must be convicted. He might level all kinds of accusations against the judge, but who would believe them? The idea of a criminal judge was ridiculous. Before Cathcart could say a dozen words he would be hustled out of the court by a warder. On the whole, there was nothing to fear.
But Bath had over-estimated his strength and power of will. The blow Cathcart had dealt him was no light one. He could not rise yet, he would have to telegraph for a brother judge to take his place. There was a certain sense of gladness when this was done, yet at the same time an uneasy feeling that he was playing the coward's part after all.
Bath managed to dress with the aid of his man after lunch. The sleek, smooth-faced Symonds had never found his master quite so irritable before.
"You can do nothing further but leave me alone," Bath muttered. "Take your bicycle and go into Lewton. Stay there until the trial of Cathcart is adjourned for the day. Then come back and tell me everything. Make plenty of notes—don't miss an essential point, for goodness sake, be off."
Symonds discreetly vanished. There was a hard, dry smile on his lips. It seemed to him that the end of his servitude was very near. It was past six when he returned. Bath looked up eagerly. A few half-smoked cigarettes lay on the table before him. There was no consolation in tobacco to-day. The flavor made him sick.
"How far did they get?" he asked hoarsely.
"Finished, sir," Symonds replied. "The case is over."
"Over? In this time? When they had to take the evidence afresh? Surely—"
He paused at the suggestion that rose to his mind. Was it possible that the prisoner had pleaded guilty?
"The jury disagreed," Symonds went on. "Six were for acquittal, and the other six for guilty, with a strong recommendation to mercy."
Bath groaned. He was familiar with the vagaries of the average jury. But to disagree in the face of evidence like that! The thing was monstrous!
"Cathcart was put back for retrial?" he suggested.
"Well, no, Sir Cyril," Symonds explained in his silkiest manner. "The prisoner was represented most ably by Mr. Morton Smyth."
"Ah! Since last night. The fellow has powerful friends. Go on."
"Mr. Smyth demanded bail. Mr. Justice Pardon granted the application. Prisoner was cheered, sir, when he came out of court."
"Cheered! I'm going mad. In the name of commonsense, what for?"
"Well, it was over that letter, sir." Bath followed with palpitating interest. "There was a letter found in the prisoner's pass-book—a letter that looked on the face of it like giving him ten years. Would you believe it, sir, but Mr. Smyth proved as the letter must have been written after that Seth Powell committed suicide!"
"I shall believe anything presently," Bath groaned. "Go on."
"The letter was written on certain paper that could only have belonged to Mr. Lockwood Mostyn. It was an entirely new kind of paper, and had only been delivered long after Seth Powell was dead. Of course, that clearly proved a conspiracy against the prisoner, hence the jury disagreed. A most interesting case, sir."
"Interesting, indeed," Bath said bitterly. "Symonds, I must see Mr. Mostyn to-night. About eight o'clock let me have a cup of beef tea and some brandy. Then get a cab to wait by the lodge gates. If anybody inquires for me, I am in bed, and not able to see a soul. Keep an eye on Mr. Renton. I shall let myself in with my latchkey. Meanwhile, I am going to try and sleep."
But sleep was not for Bath. The startling and unexpected turn in Cathcart's case banished all rest from his pillow. And how could Mostyn have been so terribly indiscreet? That was the worst of Mostyn. Like a good many other rogues of his class, he was apt to regard everybody else as a fool. He had done this thing without consulting his colleague; he had simply insinuated that the bank letter had been ingeniously brought about. If he had only mentioned the matter to Bath!
It was nearly ten o'clock before Bath could summon strength of will enough to leave the house. It required more than one dose of brandy to bring him to the proper point. But the journey was accomplished in safety, and Bath could congratulate himself that he reached Mostyn's presence without being observed.
He found the latter busy over a mass of accounts. In Mostyn's bloodshot eyes he read that he was not the only one who had sought relief in stimulants at this juncture. Mostyn looked up defiantly. For once in a way he derived no support from the evidences of wealth around him.
"I suppose you've come to bully me," he said, "about that letter?"
"Of course I have heard about the letter. Were you mad?"
"Not a bit of it. The opportunity of giving Cathcart a mortal thrust came upon me quite suddenly. I was in my office, and no other paper was available. I didn't care to use the office paper. Naturally I imagined that it would be assumed that Powell had taken the first handy sheet. And, I never guessed that that notepaper was in its way unique."
"Proceed," Bath gasped, as he dropped into a chair. "You have utterly and entirely ruined the pair of us, but I shall derive some consolation, from the knowledge of how the thing was done. How did you manage it?"
"Well, the son of a lady here, whom I got into the bank, has been betting. He told me all about it, and I promised to clear him. It was only a small matter, and it occurred to me that I might make good use of the boy."
"Oh, you have!" Bath said bitterly. "Go on."
"Not if you are going to fake that tone. Well, I asked him to meet me at my office after bank hours, and I would give him the money that he had taken. It was mainly for stamps and petty things like that. I read him a long homily on gambling."
"I should have liked to have heard it very much."
"Well, it was pretty masterly," said Mostyn. "I told him that I also had to deplore the same vice in my cashier, Powell, and another employee of mine, George Cathcart, whom I had discovered to be robbing me. I was grieved—more grieved than angry. But I was going to give them another chance. I did not want to expose them. All I desired to crush them and to force a confession was a sight of their bank-books."
"Capital! If you had only carried out the idea as successfully as you started it!"
"I worked on the boy's feelings. The next night he came to my office with their pass-books. What happened after is obvious. Next morning Cathcart's pass-book was back in the bank with that letter snugly tucked in the pocket."
Bath nodded wearily. He was tired and worn-out. He wondered vaguely whether he was himself or somebody else. That one in his judicial position, could have stooped so low seemed impossible. And four years ago he had been—
Well, man is only mortal after all. There was a knock at the door, and Bath huddled into his furs. Mostyn answered the knock personally. It was nothing more than a servant with a flat parcel, or express letter, come by rail. Mostyn tore off the cover, and glanced hastily over the contents.
"Here's a nice thing," he said. "A letter from young Stennard, the boy in the bank that I told you of. He has been reading Cathcart's trial in one of the evening papers. He is full of gratitude—confound his gratitude!—for all I did for him, but is greatly shocked and distressed over that letter of Seth Powell's. Um! He doesn't quite insinuate that I placed it in Cathcart's bank-book, but that's what he means. He implores me to write, and tell the bank-manager about those two pass-books, and says he is prepared to face all the blame. If I don't do so at once he will be compelled to move. The young fool is mad!"
"A weak, impulsive kind of boy, I suppose?" Bath asked.
"That's it. A splendid tool, if you don't trust him too far."
"Then he'll speak," Bath said with decision. "I know that hysterical disposition. And if he does speak. Mostyn, you and I—you and I—"
Bath stopped. The conclusion of the sentence seemed to stick in his throat. Mostyn stamped about the room furiously.
"I'll see that chap to-morrow," he said. "I'll frighten him to death. I'll show him in pretty plain colors what it means to speak. That will be all right."
"It will be all wrong," Bath said quietly. "You are amazingly clever and cunning with your schemes, but you are a poor judge of human nature. In my position I have had the very best opportunity of judging it. You may frighten that boy into silence for a week, but you can never stifle that kind of conscience. A week will elapse, and when you probably have dismissed the incident from your mind, you will read in the paper of the distressing suicide of a banker's clerk and a sensational 'confession' in writing flaring in the evening papers. And there are few countries where no extradition treaties exist to-day."
Mostyn ceased to rage, and dropped into a chair. There was much force behind Bath's argument.
"What do you suggest?" he asked blankly.
"A judicious letter to this boy. Say that nobody deplores this strange coincidence more than yourself. Remark that you have a perfect explanation. Be kind and gentle. Ask the lad down here for a week-end. Your bullying methods may be of great value in the city, but they are dangerous here. This will give us breathing time—time to realise in case flight should be necessary."
Mostyn stretched out an unsteady hand and helped himself to brandy.
"It begins to look like it," he said gloomily. "We have played our cards badly. But still, there is a fine reserve to fall back upon, and there are places yet where one can snap one's fingers at extradition treaties. Cathcart and his friends may know a great deal, but the full beauty of the plot has not dawned upon them yet."
Mostyn chuckled aloud, but the glass clinked against his teeth. Bath had the air of a man who had entirely abandoned hope. A feline desire to fly at his companion possessed him. Four years ago he had been honored and ambitious and happy. His grand ideas, his outlay at Langdean Chase had crippled him: he was pretty well at the end of his financial resources, but he had not dreamt of crime.
Then, later on, his evil star had brought him in contact with Lockwood Mostyn. There, had been one or two unfortunate speculations in the city, and something like an ugly financial crash impending. From thence the way down had been easy. Two years ago Bath would have laughed his present position to scorn. A puisne judge, a distinguished ornament of the judicial bench, the associate and partner of a mere vulgar criminal! Well, there would be scandal presently—a great shock to society, and the incident would be forgotten.
Bath came to himself with a start.
"We must be doing something," he said, with more energy than he had yet displayed. "You will have to go to Hull to-morrow, and—"
"Impossible! I have this boy to deal with, and there are other matters."
"Then I shall have to go. I shall have to brace myself to it. I'm not the man I was six months ago. But which English port is it to be?"
"English port!" Mostyn cried angrily. "After all that has happened, it would be madness to land that stuff here. Get back to Colombo, shift the ballast, and dispose of the cargo yonder. As to ship's papers and bills of lading, why, they are as easily forged as anything else. And what better opportunity could you have? You are ill, and you have gone abroad for a month or so for the sake of your health. Meanwhile, our old friend 'James Stevens' is busy on the other side of the Atlantic. Nothing could be better."
Bath rose slowly and painfully.
"I must be going," he said. "My cab is waiting for me by this time. I daresay I shall manage to get to Hull to-morrow."
"You must manage it. Once you've got the blue water under your feet you'll be quite a different man. Get Symonds to telegraph for you tonight."
It was the best part of an hour later when Bath quietly opened his front door. He would have been less easy in his mind had he known that Cathcart was watching him. The latter crept along to the window from which Renton had emerged, and waited patiently. An hour passed before the first signal was given.
Then the typewriter commenced to tick with a suddenness that caused Cathcart to jump. The operator was evidently in a hurry.
"Are you there?" came the curt question. "Time is precious."
Cathcart scratched on the window gently. The typewriter commenced to fly.
"There is something in the wind. Bath and his factotum have been closeted together for the last half-hour, and Symonds has just been down to the library to fetch the telegram forms. Do you happen to know Formby Station?"
George gave the affirmative signal.
"Good! Presently, unless I am mistaken, Symonds will start off to Formby and despatch a telegram. It is only a tiny roadside station, but the clerk there has a sovereign now and then from Sir Cyril to send messages out of hours to London for him. It must be an important telegram, especially after the recent interview with Mostyn, and I want you to get hold of it."
"How am I going to get hold of it?" Cathcart rapped out.
"Easily enough. Follow Symonds carefully, and wait outside the office at the station. It's only made of match-boarding; and when Symonds has gone off, if you listen carefully, you'll be able to read the message on the old fashioned instrument as it is ticked off. Then come back to me, and I will tell—"
The message broke off quite suddenly, as if the operator had been disturbed. It seemed to Cathcart that he could hear voices inside. He waited patiently for another quarter of an hour, and then a figure came from the front door. Evidently this was the man Symonds. Cathcart gave him a start of a few minutes, and then followed rapidly. The buildings of Formby Station loomed a little way ahead. Somebody was rapping vigorously on the front door, and a sleepy voice was asking what was the matter. Cathcart crept near enough to hear all that passed.
"It's me, Mr. Miles," Symonds replied. "I've got a most important telegram for you to despatch for the governor. It's the last time we shall trouble you for some time to come. We go abroad for our health to-morrow."
"All right, Mr. Symonds," Cathcart could hear the response. "I'm coming. I am glad to hear that Sir Cyril is so much better."
A door opened and closed somewhere; there was a sound of muffled voices. Presently Symonds emerged and went whistling down the road. He passed so close to Cathcart that the latter could have touched him. A moment later, and from within the little hut-like office came the click of the telegraphist.
Cathcart followed keenly. He could hear every word distinctly. He made a careful note of the address in his pocket-book, not that there was much occasion, for the message was despatched to Hull via London, and Cathcart knew the street in the great northern port perfectly well.
The message was finished at length, there was a stifled yawn from within, followed by a sound as if somebody was blowing out a lamp. Ten minutes later and Cathcart was rapping on Renton's window again. The typewriter began to go.
"Been successful?" it asked.
"Absolutely," George replied. "I've got the message. Here it is: 'Jordan, 11 Sackville-road, Hull. The Star must not set in the East. Be with you some time in the course of to-morrow.—Stevens.'"
Renton tapped back again that it was splendid. Everything was paying out beautifully. To-morrow the pseudo-typist and Cathcart were going to London, and from thence to Hull.
"And what shall I do now?" asked Cathcart.
The answering message was curt, and to the point.
"Go to bed," it ran. "Goodnight!"
Russet walked along in the pleasant sunshine, feeling a little uncertain as to whether she should be glad or sorry. In some vague way, she felt as if she were going to meet trouble. Mrs. Stennard had sent an urgent message that she would like to see her immediately after breakfast, and Russet had hurried off without delay.
Trouble and gloom seemed to be in the air. Mostyn had come down and swallowed his breakfast without a word. In the same vile temper he had ordered the trap round to catch the 8.45 for London.
Mrs. Stennard's trouble was connected with her son. Russet did not need to be told that: she guessed it by instinct. And yet the pretty ivy-covered house, with its trim lawn and spotless curtains and shining windows, did not suggest trouble. Everything looked like gentility and prosperity.
A trim little maid, with a small, hushed voice, asked Russet into the drawing-room. It was the old-fashioned, low room, filled with the quaint things that the collector loves. A small, white-haired lady rose to greet Russet. Her face was pale and her eyes red with weeping.
"It's about Raymond, my dear," she said brokenly.
Russet pressed her thin hands with sympathy. She had expected as much.
"What has he been doing?"
"My dear Russet, I can't make it out. I have had such an extraordinary letter. My poor boy was always very excitable and emotional. I thought at one time he was going to become a poet. He says he has been the unconscious instrument by which another has been terribly wronged. Now, what does he mean?"
Russet shook her head sorrowfully. As a matter of fact, the solution of the problem was quite clear to her. Her ready wit had found a way in which Mostyn had disposed of the forged letter. And doubtless Raymond Stennard had read the trial in the papers. The boy was weak and foolish, but his instincts were all for the good.
"No. He says that he feels that he cannot bear the strain. Unless someone comes forward and tells the truth, he will not be answerable for the consequences. I telegraphed to Raymond this morning, and the reply has come that Raymond has not been home all night. Russet, the poor boy has run away."
It was exceedingly likely. Mrs. Stennard's distress was sad to see.
"Where would he be likely to go?" Russet asked vaguely.
"Somewhere near the sea. The poor boy has a passion for the sea. He has a great desire to see foreign parts. He would go down to the docks. He has little or no money. Russet can't you think of any way to help me?"
But already Russet's ready brain began to see the way. George Cathcart was going to London to-day. And nobody of her acquaintance had the same extensive knowledge of docks and vessels, and the ways of men who go down to the sea in ships. And she had often heard Raymond express his desire to see the world.
"I fancy I can help you," she said. "I have a friend who—well, quite as a secret, let me tell you that Mr. Cathcart is an old acquaintance of mine. He knows all there is to know about ships. Seeing that Raymond has little money, and less knowledge of the sea, he will find a difficulty in getting a post on board a vessel. But I should not tell your trouble to anybody."
"I will do just as you please, my dear," Mrs. Stennard said meekly. "Only bring my boy back to me and let me comfort him. He has done no wrong, and he is all that I have in the world."
It seemed to Russet that Mrs. Stennard spoke more truly than she knew. When the crash came, and the credit of Lockwood Mostyn crumbled in the dust, the trim cottage was like to follow in the ruins. It was with a heavy heart that Russet sought out George Cathcart.
There was little time to spare, but he listened patiently to the story. Doubtless Russet's construction of the affair was a correct one. And if Raymond Stennard was to be found, George was the very man to find him.
"If he's hanging about the London Docks, I shall get news of him in an hour," he said confidently. "You are quite correct, Russet. That boy, quite unconsciously, came very near to giving me ten years' penal servitude. No doubt Mostyn worked up his guilty knowledge to get hold of my passbook. There is still a prospect of my suffering, and he is miserable about it. We shall find Raymond Stennard, and he shall go a long way to expose that scoundrel Mostyn."
Two hours later, and Cathcart, with Renton, was closeted in Mr. Syrett's office. But George had not forgotten his promise as to Raymond Stennard. A couple of telegrams despatched from Lewton had brought two hard-bitten bronzed individuals to Lincoln's Inn Fields, where George had given them a brief description of the fugitive and a promise of a sovereign apiece for news of him in the course of the day.
"Now sit down," Syrett said cheerfully. "I have given orders that I am not to be disturbed for the next hour or so, as this is likely to prove an important meeting. Mr. Cathcart, I congratulate you."
"Rather early in the day, isn't it?" George asked.
"Oh, dear no. We are going to clear your character in the eyes of the world. We know that you are the victim of a vile conspiracy. We know that a certain letter was deliberately placed in your pass-book to ruin you. We know that that letter was placed there by Lockwood Mostyn."
"I shall have further evidence of that before the day is out, I hope," Cathcart said.
Mr. Syrett cocked his head knowingly. He beamed as George proceeded to tell all he knew about Raymond Stennard.
"That is good hearing," he said; "very good hearing indeed. But we shall have to be cautious—very cautious indeed. We must not allow a particle of the net to be seen until we are in a position to draw all the meshes tight."
"It's likely to prove a terrible scandal," Renton suggested.
"Well, it is," Syrett admitted. "Actually a judicial luminary mixed up in it. Mr. Cathcart, I am most anxious to hear and have a full account of the way in which you first met Bath—I mean, James Stevens—in America."
"Perhaps I had better begin at the proper end," Cathcart said. "For some time, on and off, I have done work for Mostyn and Company. They sent me out in the Lone Star, in ballast, more or less, to pick up a valuable cargo that was heavily insured at New York. The cargo was partly silver and partly pearl-shell, and did not take up much room.
"From the very first I had a great deal of trouble with my crew. If they had been picked out for the purpose of annoying me they could not have been better selected. There were two of them especially who caused no end of mischief. I had seen them more than once in New York in conversation with a man who, I learnt, was called James Stevens. I little guessed who the James Stevens was."
"Of course not," Syrett murmured. "Go on."
"Well, my two men went too far, and the authorities dropped on them for something that was quite outside my story. I managed to get together a crew of sorts, and amongst them the very James Stevens I have mentioned. I mistrusted him a little, but he seemed to know his work well, and I took him. We contrived to collect a pretty good general cargo atop of our bar silver and pearl-shell, and a day later I intended to sail for England. Just before I went aboard I dined with Stevens. I've never been overcome with liquor in my life, but I was then. I was drugged, of course. To make a long story short, I was kept like that for a week. I hadn't the remotest idea what I was doing, and five days later—ostensibly navigating my own ship, mind—I ran her on the Hog's Back Reef, and she became a total wreck. So far as I know, there were only two hands saved besides myself, and it was their evidence that very nearly sent me to penal servitude."
"James Stevens remained all the time, I suppose?" Syrett asked.
"Really, I can't tell you. He must have done, or the drugging process would not have been kept up. The two witnesses declared that everybody was drowned beside themselves and me. Of course, Stevens did not mean to be in evidence at all: but when the rascals got into trouble he had to do his dirty work himself. He imagined that he would never be recognised if ever I met him again in England. The idea was to get the insurance money, and there would be an end to the business. But when certain facts leaked out the company declined to pay."
"And after that a scapegoat had to be found," said Renton. "Perhaps I had better explain matters from my point of view. I fancy I am going to astonish you."
"I have known for some considerable time that Bath was in low water," Renton went on. "I discovered by accident that he was using his ward's money. A little later on I made another discovery. A foreign scoundrel was blackmailing Bath. I investigated that matter, and by degrees I gradually learnt the part that Bath had played over the Lone Star. I could do nothing, because I could not prove my points. I cast about for some way out of the difficulty, and hit upon my ingenious scheme of bringing Bath and Cathcart face to face. But I need not go into that. Fortune gave me plenty of opportunity. I was a guest under Bath's roof: I was more or less engaged to his ward. But I had to play a part there. If I had not pretended to cool off in my affections to Miss Grace Ives, Bath would have kept me out of the house. To let me stay would have encouraged the marriage, and then Bath would have been terribly put to it when the time came to give an account of his stewardship. It was not a nice part to play, but it was necessary."
"I don't quite see why," said Cathcart.
"You will presently," Renton said dryly. "At any rate, it saved you from gaol, and it put us on the track of the culprits. I'm not so well off that I can afford to lose a vessel like the Lone Star. What did you think of her, Cathcart?"
"That she was better than she looked," George replied. "She struck me as being made to look cheap and disreputable for some purpose."
"Gun-running," Renton chuckled. "Any more questions to ask?"
"One that seems to me to be pretty pertinent," George said. "What could our opponents gain by the casting sway of the Lone Star? They gain, or hope to gain, the insurance money, it is true, but the lost cargo?"
"They didn't lose the cargo," said Renton dryly.
"But it went down to the bottom of the sea in the Lone Star."
"My dear fellow, it did nothing of the kind. The cargo is safe and sound."
"But I saw it on board," said George; "to say nothing of the hundreds of tons of other stuff on the top of it. I was on board the Lone Star when she went to the bottom. There is no more to be said."
"Not for the present," Renton said in the same dry manner. "I am going to open your eyes before many hours are over our heads. I am waiting now for a telegram from Hull. Meanwhile, let us go out and see if we can make anything out about our young friend, Raymond Stennard."
"No. 74 Bardell-street first," Syrett said significantly.
A cab was called, and a move was made in the direction of Bardell-street. At the corner of the road Renton got out, and signified that George should wait for him.
"There'll be some fun presently," he said significantly. "The first place of the unfolding of the mystery is about to be entered upon."
Renton came back presently with considerable diminution of his natural cheerfulness. He seemed to be greatly disappointed about something.
"I was going to give you a startling and not altogether unpleasant surprise," he said; "but the bird has flown. Still, the bird is in the big cage called London somewhere, and we shall have to find him. He went off last night modestly in a hansom cab, having just paid for his rooms a week's rent in lieu of notice, though they say he is expected back soon."
"Young Stennard next, then," George suggested. "East India Docks first. Pull up at the telephone office, and tell Syrett to send my men, if they turn up soon, to Franklin and Morgan's offices in Ship-street."
It was nearly three o'clock before one of the hard-bitten tarry men came with the news that the wanderer had been found. Sitting dejectedly on a pile of sacks, Cathcart discovered the object of his search. It was the lad he had seen often enough at the banker's. He touched the drooping figure on the shoulder.
"I fancy your name is Raymond Stennard," he said quietly.
There was a little, gasping cry, the vision of a white, pitiful face, and limbs that trembled.
"Mr. Cathcart!" a hoarse voice said. "What do you want?"
"No harm to yourself," Cathcart said kindly. "My boy, you are doing a very foolish and unkind thing in giving your mother terrible anxiety. And, after all, you have done no great wrong."
"No great wrong. No great—If you only knew!"
"I know everything," said Cathcart in the same kindly tone. "I know that you were foolish, and that Mr. Mostyn helped you out. By way of a return for that, you took my pass-book from the bank, and then gave me no end of trouble. But I am quite sure that you did not imagine that you were doing any harm. I daresay that scoundrel told you some plausible tale. Now, didn't he?"
Stennard nodded. He could not speak for the moment. A great lump seemed to have risen in his throat and choked him. The terror that had filled him broke and gave way to other emotions.
"He did," he contrived to say presently. "I—I robbed the bank. It wasn't much, but it was more than I could repay. I had been betting, and Mr. Mostyn was wonderfully kind to me. He told me that you had been betting too—you and Seth Powell, and—oh!"
"Never mind Seth Powell for the present," George said hastily. "Go on."
"That you had both been betting and that you had robbed him. He had a great regard for both of you, and didn't want to expose you. But he wanted to see your pass-book, so as to bring it home to you. And I took it."
The boy was crying quietly. He was exhausted by his grief and sheer want of food. Cathcart would not hear another word until he had taken his companion into a respectable hotel hard by, and seen him partake of a good meal.
"Have you got into trouble with the bank?" George asked.
"No; I sent a message to say that I was not well enough to come to-day. But as yet they don't know there is anything serious the matter."
For the first time Cathcart's face grew hard and stern.
"Have you communicated with Mr. Mostyn?" he asked.
"I sent him a letter. I implored him to explain. I was half mad at the time."
"Well, you are going to be very quiet now, and do as I tell you," George said grimly. "You are to go back to work to-morrow as if nothing had happened. Under no circumstances are you to let anybody know that you have seen me. Whatever Mostyn's excuse may be—and it will be an ingenious one—you are to accept it as genuine. Mostyn is a scoundrel, and he has come near to doing me a grievous wrong. You can help to undo that wrong by keeping silence till I give you leave to speak."
"I'll do anything you like," the boy said with great humility. "And if you will only try and forgive me for the great wrong I have done—"
"You have done me no wrong at all," Cathcart said. "You were foolish and indiscreet, but you were acting for the best. After all is said and done, Mostyn is going to be hoist with his own petard."
"Exactly," said Renton, speaking for the first time. "But some while ago you were going to say something about another engaging bank customer of yours. What were you going to observe about Mr. Seth Powell?"
Stennard's eyes gleamed, his lips twitched uneasily. He glanced from one to the other of his companions in a nervous kind of way.
"You see, I knew him very well," he said rapidly. "He used to come to the bank very often. He was a quiet man, and reserved in his manner."
"He was a slimy rascal," Cathcart put in. "Go on."
"Well, I was thinking a great deal about him to-day. You see, he was identified with my trouble. And I was wondering whether he was in the conspiracy, or whether he was after all, only a victim like Mr. Cathcart here, when—"
"Oh, do get on," Renton said impatiently. "Once for all, you can get rid of the idea that Mr. Seth Powell was the least bit of a victim. If you could only show us the way whereby we can find out anything—"
"Then come this way. It's not a very respectable house, but still—"
The other two followed. They all came at length to a kind of eating house, where there were small tables, and here and there men and women feeding on what looked like the best possible refuse in the way of food.
At the far end a man was eating slowly and drinking from a very dirty coffee cup. A stained morning paper was propped up before him.
"It can't be an accidental likeness," Stennard said excitedly. "I saw him come in here an hour ago, but he did not see me. Now what do you—"
Renton grabbed Cathcart by the arm.
"Who is it?" he asked. "Who is that fellow yonder?"
"Seth Powell," George whispered; "as I am alive, Seth Powell!"
Cathcart's first impulse, on seeing Seth Powell, verged on the murderous. He would have liked to take the shabby little man by the throat and shake the life out of him. What deep scheme was at the bottom of this he neither knew nor cared. But it was quite impossible to believe that Seth Powell could have remained in ignorance of recent dramatic events at Lewton.
Renton laid a restraining hand on the arm of his companion. With a gesture he indicated the white face and glittering eyes of the youth who accompanied them.
Raymond Stennard suggested brain fever. He was shaking with excitement.
"Come outside for a moment," Renton whispered. "Even if our man had caught sight of us, there is only one way out of the room."
It was good to stand in the open air after the close, sour atmosphere of the eating-house. A little color crept into the cheeks of Raymond Stennard.
"You have made a great discovery," Renton said. "You have enabled us to get to the bottom of a vile conspiracy. Now we know why you were here, and, fortunately, we have been able to prevent your further folly. I take it that you would do anything in your power to help Mr. Cathcart?"
"Oh, yes," Stennard cried. "But for him—"
"But for him you would be comfortably perched on your high stool at this moment. I am not in the least angry, because you are more sinned against than sinning. Nobody suspects anything at the bank. Therefore you are to go back there in the morning as if nothing had happened. You would be helping us materially by such a course. Go at once and see your mother. It is of the greatest importance that you should ease her mind. If Mr. Lockwood Mostyn approaches you—as he is pretty sure to do—assume to act exactly as he tells you. And now you had better go."
"You are sure that Mr. Cathcart is not likely to—"
"Not in the least likely. Go; you are wasting our time."
Raymond Stennard retired without further protest. He was holding his head higher now; there was method in his movements.
"So that's all right," said Renton. "Now for our man again."
They were back in the evil-smelling eating-house. The shabby little man they were after was engrossed in his paper. With a grim smile Cathcart stood before him. Then he struck the grimy newspaper aside.
"Any interesting suicides?" he asked grimly.
Seth Powell looked up in a vague way, his bloodshot eyes were horribly vacant; there was a blue tinge on his cheeks. As life and sense came back to him, he began to shake in a grotesque, jelly-fish kind of way. A film that might have passed for tears filled his eyes.
"Why, it's Mr. Cathcart!" he said hoarsely. "Mr. Cathcart!"
"Well, there's nothing strange about that," George said impatiently. "I never disappeared from the counting house of a distinguished capitalist. I never committed a picturesque suicide, to be subsequently identified by my employer, and finally buried at the expense of that generous individual."
"Mr. Mostyn was mistaken," Powell said with a tentative laugh. "He—"
"You mean that he honestly thought he had found you?" Renton asked.
"Well, yes, whoever you are."
"I am the owner of the Lone Star, if you must know," Renton replied. "Come out of this."
Powell protested tearfully he was doing no harm. If he chose to disappear, and remain modestly anonymous in the future, it was nothing to anybody so long as his recent employer—
Renton cut him short.
"You have heard what recently took place at Lewton Assizes?" he asked.
Powell shook his head thoughtfully. Lewton he knew, because Mr. Mostyn lived near there, but the assizes conveyed nothing to his mind. Renton snatched impatiently at the greasy paper that Powell had been reading.
"You are a poor sort of liar," he said. "Why, you were actually reading the account of the proceedings when we came in! Now, listen to me. You are supposed to have robbed your late employer, and committed suicide when found out. You also know all about the letter in the pocket of Mr. Cathcart's pass-book. If I call a policeman, and tell him you are Seth Powell who is mixed up in the celebrated Cathcart case, the consequences are likely to be awkward."
The seedy little man collapsed at once. He averred tremblingly that he was the victim of circumstances; he meant no harm to anybody. On his honor, he knew nothing of the Cathcart case until he had read it a few minutes ago. And seeing that Mr. Cathcart was now, happily, free, there was no reason for him to interfere.
"If I can help you, I will," he said, fawningly.
"You can help us a great deal," Renton replied. "In the first place, why did you leave your comfortable rooms in Bardell-street, saying that you were going into the country for a few days and hire a wretched garret here?"
Powell sighed gently. The tale he was mentally concocting was useless with a man like this, who knew all about him.
"I had a warning," he said: "a telegram from a friend, telling me that I was not safe. So I went at once."
"Afraid of the police, I suppose?"
"Well, yes, sir, if you like to put it that way."
"You fled hurriedly, leaving all your things behind you, saying that you would let the people in Bardell-street know when you were returning. Well, you are going to return there now."
"But, then, the police?" Powell gasped.
"At present the police are not concerned with you. They deem you to be dead and buried. We are the people who are likely to set the police up on you. Your sitting-room at 74 Bardell-street is behind the dining-room, I believe."
Powell nodded. He was drifting helplessly with the tide now.
"It is connected with the front room by folding doors," Renton went on. "In fact, it is practically a double dining-room. The front part is occupied by a clever and ambitious young doctor, who uses it partly for a consulting and partly for a sitting-room. His plate is on the door."
"Your knowledge is wonderfully accurate, sir," Powell said humbly.
"I fancy I am pretty well posted," Renton went on dryly. "This young doctor—who is pretty certain to get on—is out all the afternoon, because he has lately succeeded in getting a parish appointment. He is quite up to date, and therefore has a telephone in his room. Useful things, telephones, eh?"
Powell gasped again. His watery eyes were regarding Renton attentively.
"You are pretty friendly with the young doctor. When he is out you have the run of his room, as being more cheerful. Are you ready?"
Powell was quite ready. He would do anything that the gentleman required. There was a trembling, fawning eagerness that filled up the measure of Cathcart's contempt.
"Where are we going?" the latter asked.
"Back to Bardell-street," Renton explained. "Come along."
A little later and the ill-assorted associates arrived at Bardell-street. The little back sitting-room occupied by Powell was stuffy, but the air was pure and sweet by comparison with the eating-house near the docks.
"Now you go and make yourself respectable," Renton commanded. "And if you try to play me false—But I don't fancy you'll do that."
The little man smiled and writhed out of the room.
"How long have you known about this?" Cathcart asked.
"A day or two before your trial," Renton explained. "When Syrett found out about that letter in the pocket of your pass-book he naturally told me. In the first instance I thought the letter was a forgery."
"But, my dear fellow, Lockwood Mostyn forged it."
"Nothing of the kind. Seth Powell wrote it. After the supposed suicide he must have gone to Mostyn's office late one night, by appointment—the night of the day when young Stennard handed over your pass-book."
"In that case, why the 'suicide' at all?" Cathcart asked.
"Don't you see the diabolical ingenuity of it all?" exclaimed Renton. "Powell's suicide was a tacit admission of his guilt—and yours. At first I believed that letter to be a forgery. But to our surprise, when we handed it to an expert with a vouched copy of Seth Powell's handwriting, he pronounced it to be genuine. That being so, Powell couldn't be dead, you see."
It was all so complicated that Cathcart had to think it over for a moment.
"I see," he said. "The letter was an afterthought—after Powell was legally dead, in fact."
"Just so; Powell had written that letter, and so he couldn't be dead. The first thing Mr. Syrett noticed was the peculiarity of that paper. With a great deal of trouble we found the maker of that paper, with what result you know."
"But why not have gone further?" Cathcart urged. "Why not have arrested Powell and Mostyn for conspiracy, and cleared me that way?"
"You are going to be cleared right enough." Renton said cheerfully. "If I had done that I should have lost money over the Lone Star."
"That is lost already," said Cathcart.
Renton smiled in a mysterious manner. It was evident that he knew a deal more than he cared to say for the present.
"Nous verrons," he said cheerfully. "Personally, I think otherwise. Seth Powell knows a great deal, but he doesn't know everything. Neither do you, for that matter. I have astonished you pretty well this morning, but that is nothing compared to the surprise that I am going to give you before long."
"How did you get on Powell's track?" Cathcart asked.
"Well, that was an easy matter. You see, I had carefully examined Powell's writing, which was a great point in my favor. When I realised that the blackguard was alive, and that the whole plant had been got up by Mostyn, I tried to find out if 'James Stevens' was also aware of the fact. I thought it was possible that Mostyn had kept him in the dark on this point, and he had. Such scoundrels as those are never true to each other, Cathcart."
"But how did you find that out?"
"Quite easily. Powell drinks. This being so, it was mere prudence on Mostyn's part to keep him short of money. This being granted, I felt pretty sure that Powell would write to Mostyn for money—worry him, in fact."
"At his private address, you mean?"
"Exactly. Well, he did. He wrote to Mostyn very often for cash. And I was soon in a position to verify the handwriting. As a matter of fact, that not very pleasant part of the business was done for me by a private inquiry agent. The following Monday he showed me a letter addressed to Mr. S. Powell—a neat idea for Powell not to sink his own name—at 74 Bardell-street. Volla tout."
Renton spread out his hands in a dramatic gesture.
"And when you got here the bird had flown?"
"The bird must have been alarmed. It will be my business to find out from whence the alarm came. But it's quite time our man was back again. Still, I'm not afraid of his playing me false."
Seth Powell slid into the room presently with his most ingratiating smile. He was quite at the disposal of his friends, he said.
"Then let us go into the doctor's room," Renton suggested. "I am informed that he is out this afternoon."
Powell admitted such to be the case, and led the way through the folding doors. The place was neat and tidy and well furnished, and conveyed the impression of being occupied by a doctor in fair practice. On a large table between the windows stood a telephone of the latest Edison design.
"A most admirable arrangement," Renton exclaimed. "The suicide cut off from the world can sit here and communicate with his friends, minus the risk of interference by a vulgar and inquisitive police force. The whole scheme has been exceedingly well thought out. By the way, where did you get the message from that caused you to abandon these very pleasant quarters so hurriedly?"
"It came from a friend in Sheffield," Powell said glibly.
"Um," said Renton. "You are sure it didn't come from Lewton?"
"No, sir, it didn't," Powell snapped. "As I said before it came from a—"
"No reason to repeat the lie. It came from Hull."
Powell gasped. His face grew dull and grey. Renton followed up his advantage.
"Try and fool me again," said he sternly, "and I'll out of the house and leave you to your fate. Where did that message come from?"
"It came from Hull," said Powell, as if the words were dragged from him.
"Now we can get along," Renton went on. "Sit there, just by that instrument. I'll take my place here so that I can follow the conversation and dictate replies to you without being heard at the other end. Ring up 00175 Bank."
"Why, that is Mr. Mostyn's number," Powell said in feeble dismay.
"Well, what of it?" Renton demanded. "It's by no means the first time you have talked over the wire to the great man. You are going to speak to him with the most engaging frankness to-day. He owes you money?"
"He has not sent me an allowance for a fortnight."
"Um. Even great financiers are occasionally very short of ready money. Ring him up."
With a trembling hand Powell, turned the handle.
"Put me through to Mr. Mostyn's room," Powell said in a piping voice, not in the least like his own. "Yes. Are you there, sir? I won't keep you a minute."
"Tell him that unless he sends you some money to-day you will write a full account of all you know to Mr. Renton, the owner of the Lone Star."
With a groan Powell sent the message along. There was a burst of wrath from the other end, and a string of threats that caused the operator to tremble.
"Never mind," Renton whispered. "Our capitalist seems to have lost his temper about something. What was that last thing he said?"
"Wants to know what I have to tell," said Powell, carefully muffling the mouth of the receiver before he spoke. "And what have I got to tell, sir?"
"Tell him that you know far more than he imagines," Renton replied. "Tell him there are people in Hull who may be more liberal."
Powell passed the message on in as truculent a tone as he could manage. The effect of these words was peculiar. There was no explosion of wrath in reply, but a quiet thin voice that demanded to know what Powell was talking about. Once more he plugged the receiver, and asked for instructions.
"Say you know all about the Lone Star," said Renton. "Say that you are going to place all the facts on paper, and send them to Mr. Renton. Say that if you only go to him you will get as much money as you require."
Powell spoke with his teeth shut tightly together.
"Capital!" Renton said sotto voce. "Couldn't be better. There was a natural tone about that speech that would have deceived even Mostyn. What's that?"
"Do nothing yet," the voice of Mostyn answered. "I'm busy. Wait till four o'clock this afternoon, and then I may—"
"Finished?" piped a shrill voice. There was a click and the communication was cut off. Powell put up the receiver with a clatter. His face was white and damp, his lips had a blue tinge about them.
"I'm going to write a letter," Renton said coolly.
It was a long letter, but it was finished at length. There was a clatter in the street, and a hansom pulled up before the house, and a big figure got down. The bell rang lustily.
"Who is it?" Powell asked, turning a shade paler if possible. "You don't mean to say that it's—"
Renton jumped back from the window.
"Lockwood Mostyn himself," he whispered excitedly. "He's come to see you, Powell. I half expected this. See him in your own room, and close the doors. This is a real slice of luck for us, Cathcart."
Seth Powell looked likely to collapse just for the moment. Renton crossed over and shook him vigorously.
"Now listen to me," he said between his teeth. "You have matters in your own hands. If you play me false you are a lost man. Do what I tell you, and you are free. Take Mostyn's side, and we shall drag you into the daylight. Act fairly by me, and the suicide Seth Powell shall remain decently buried in the grave where he is supposed to rest."
The seedy, little man looked up with a vacant, watery eye. Evidently he was terribly afraid of Mostyn. There was another impatient ring at the bell. Powell moistened his dry lips and muttered something that sounded like 'Brandy.' Renton hustled him through the double doors and closed them carefully.
A door opened somewhere, the voice of Mostyn was distinctly heard. He strode into the presence of the quivering Powell.
"Anybody in the next room?" he demanded.
"Doctor," Powell gasped, as if swallowing something hard. "Out all day. Never home except at night. You can speak freely."
"I'm going to," Mostyn said grimly. "Now, you little rascal, what do you mean by treating me in this fashion?"
The big man towered over the little one. His face was coarse and red with anger. Had Powell been less alarmed he would not have failed to note the uneasy gleam in the eyes of his antagonist.
"I've done nothing," he whined. "You promised me a certain sum of money every week, and I've not had a penny for a fortnight."
"Because I'm very short of ready cash. Why did you leave here yesterday, saying you were not coming back for some days?"
"Because I had a warning that there was danger about."
Mostyn started slightly. He had not expected a reply like that.
"Indeed!" he exclaimed. "And where did your warning come from?"
"It came from a gentleman who shall be nameless."
"You fool!" Mostyn cried passionately. "Do you mean to say that you have actually taken anybody into your confidence?"
"That's as it may be," Powell said doggedly. "I'm not quite the blind fool you think I am."
"If I only had you out in the open with a hunting-whip," Mostyn muttered. "I didn't want any of your friends to know that you were still alive."
"Matter of indifference to me what you wanted," said Powell, taking a desperate pull at his courage. If the worst came to the worst he had friends close at hand. "I had to live. When I came into your company I had saved one thousand pounds. I had slaved and sweated for the money—I was going to put it into some sound business. I was going to grow rich. And what happened? I was fool enough to believe in you; I let you have my hard savings, gulled by your pretty promises. And it's all gone. I could strangle you when I think of it."
He started up in a burst of hysterical passion, the headlong rage of the weak man that becomes so dangerous at times. There was a heavy ruler on the table, and Powell waved it over his head in an alarming manner. The big bully turned slightly pale, and Powell saw it.
"You ruined me," he went on. "You made a fool of me; and when I was under your thumb you made me write that letter. It was going to save you, and I was going to get everything back again. And when you got me dead to the world you left me here to starve for all you cared."
"Steady!" Mostyn said softly. "Steady! steady!"
"Oh, of course," Powell sneered. "You're all right. And you can defy me because I am legally dead. But you don't do it, Mr. Mostyn. If I go to Mr. Renton and tell him all I know, a pretty figure you'll cut. And I'll do it unless you come to my terms."
Mostyn crushed down the rage that filled him. He was beginning unpleasantly to recognise that his tool was likely to cut him.
"Let us talk this matter over quietly," he said. "That you were an honest man who was ruined by contact with me is all nonsense. You have always been ready to do anything for money. I chose you because I knew that. And you shall be rich yet. I have a great scheme on hand that will set us all on our feet again. Never mind what it is."
"I know," Powell went on. "I know all about the Lone Star."
"You—you know—you know all about the Lone Star!"
Mostyn fairly gasped. His face was pale, his lips were trembling and uneasy. The little man on the other side of the table followed up his advantage.
"I know everything," he said with a grand air. "I kept my eyes open. When I found that you were a vulgar swindler, and that I had lost my money, I kept my eyes open wider still. It seemed to me that I could afford to wait my time. And when the great coup comes off I take a third of the plunder."
"Oh, you take a third," Mostyn said blankly. "And who—"
"Takes the other two? Why James Stevens and yourself. If I don't share I go straight to Mr. Renton."
Mostyn shaded his eyes as if thinking deeply. As a matter of fact, the expression of his face was so murderous that he was fearful lest the other should see it. When he looked up again he was smiling quietly.
"I'm afraid you've got me," he said. "But as to a third; why, that is all nonsense. Still, if you are to benefit you are not going to shirk your share of the work. You are going to Hull for me, where you are going to keep your eyes open, and keep an eye upon James Stevens. If he robs me, he robs you, you understand. Give me some paper and ink and a pen."
Mostyn proceeded to write a letter, a work of composition that occupied him some considerable time. Finally it was sealed and handed over to Powell.
"You will go to Hull to-night," he said. "Here are two five-pound notes for you, and when you want more you are to let me know. Take the letter to the address on this envelope, and there you will be told what to do. And now I fancy that you and I understand one another."
"We are beginning to," Powell said dryly.
Mostyn rose and proffered his hand. For choice he would far rather have strangled the little man with the queer smile on his face. A moment later and he was out of the house and striding along the street.
"Well, that's all right," Powell muttered as he wiped his face. "He's a coward and a bully, that's what he is. If I'd only known that before. Well, gentlemen?"
The easy smile was for Renton, who came into the room, followed by Cathcart. It was evident that Powell was feeling on good terms with himself.
"You carried that off well," said Renton.
"I flatter myself I did," Powell said with proper humility. "It was the touch about the Lone Star that did it. And I know no more about the Lone Star than I do about Arabic except that she's at the bottom of the sea."
With a queer smile Renton demanded to see the letter written by Mostyn. Then he asked for a little hot water, with which he proceeded to soften the gum on the envelope. Despite the time it had taken to write, here were only a few lines in side. There was no heading and no signature.
"Let the fool who brings this know as little or as much as you like," it ran: "it does not matter either way. If you find him in the way, be generous to him in the way of strong liquors. He can't resist that. And if he falls overboard and is lost some dark night, it won't make any difference to the way in which you and I shall settle up accounts eventually."
"That's a nice thing!" Powell said indignantly.
"Then keep sober," Renton replied. "Take that letter to the place in Hull, and don't make yourself too conspicuous. We shall not be very far away. Come along, Cathcart."
Cathcart followed, nothing loth. He was longing for action, and at last there seemed a chance of doing something definite.
"Where are we going to?" he asked.
"Hull," Renton replied promptly. "We are going to play the last act of the drama, as Mostyn will find to his cost."
The long journey was nearly over, and the lights of the great port of Hull were beginning to twinkle in the haze as Renton shook himself together. Once arrived at their destination, they did not proceed to a local hotel, as Cathcart had anticipated. On the contrary, they drove as far as the village of Ancote, where they found quarters. In the cottage of a North Sea pilot.
They were evidently expected, for a comfortable dinner awaited them, and a cheerful landlady seemed glad to see Renton.
"Well, Mrs. Brodie," he said, "is your husband back yet?"
"He'll be in with the tide," the comfortable-looking woman replied. "And the Queen of the Mist is all ready to sail at daybreak, sir."
Cathcart pricked up his ears. After all he had gone through lately, the idea of having salt water under his feet was pleasing.
"It's a tug I have hired," Renton explained. "She is quite a stranger to these waters, which is all the better for our purpose. I said I was going to give you a surprise, and you will find me as good as my word. But we shall have some rough work before we are through."
"What is the plan of campaign?"
"In the first place, we shall start with the early morning tide on a voyage of discovery. John Brodie, our landlord, is an old friend of mine, and one of the best pilots in the North Sea. The Queen of the Mist is anchored up in a little cove not far from here. As the expedition is a secret one, I preferred this place to Hull. Did you notice anything strange in the address of the letter that Mostyn gave to Powell to-day?"
"Only that I knew the street in Hull," said Cathcart.
"Only that? Tax your memory."
"I've got it," Cathcart cried after a short pause: "It was addressed to the same place to which Bath despatched that strange telegram."
"Right! To Jordan. 11 Sackville-road, Hull. The same Jordan is, or rather was, a North Sea pilot. He is a fine sailor, and as a pilot had few equals. But he got into bad company and took to drink, was mixed up in several shady practices, and finally the Board of Trade cancelled his certificates. If I wanted to run contraband in here, or anything of that kind on a dark night, Jordan is the very man I should select for the job."
Cathcart was beginning to understand a little. He had despatched his dinner, and was prepared for a quiet pipe after a long day, but Renton would not hear of it.
"We are going to Hull on business," he said; "and we are going to walk. With any luck we shall be back by midnight."
It was past ten when Cathcart and Renton reached the seaport town of Hull, Renton led the way with the air of a man who thoroughly knows his ground.
They came at length to the meanest street in the neighborhood of the docks. Renton pulled his hat over his eyes and turned his collar up, and Cathcart did the same. For some time the former seemed to be deeply engrossed in watching the coaling of a ship, whilst his companion waited patiently.
A thickset man, evidently the worse for drink, came rolling along the quay. He was followed by a slight, agile-looking individual, who seemed to be soliciting something.
"The big man is Jordan," Renton whispered, "and drunk as usual. But that will not prevent him from being fit for anything in the morning. That's Ben alongside."
"And who might Ben be?" Cathcart asked.
"Ben is one of my men. He's found out that there is something in the wind with money attached to it, and he's pestering Jordan to take him along. But all that is in accordance with instructions. We came here to see Ben."
Jordan pulled up with drunken gravity.
"I'm a North Sea pilot," he said with a sense of importance; "a credit to Hull and what you call an acquisition to my native land. My enemies are too many for me, and poor old Jordan has lost his certificate."
"It's a burning shame," said Ben with sympathy.
"It's nothing of the kind," the other retorted. "It serves me right. But there are other ways of making a living besides grovelling at the feet of the Board of Trade. Ever heard of the Lugger Bank, Ben, my boy?"
"Take me along with you?" Ben said persuasively.
"I'll do nothing of the kind," Jordan said firmly, "I'm a bad lot and a drunken fool, but I never led a boy astray yet what had a respectable widow for a mother. I tell you that I've got business on the Lugger Bank, and there's an end on it."
"I couldn't come on Thursday," Ben said artfully.
"Didn't say it was Thursday," Jordan snapped. "I said the first tide in the morning. No, I didn't; I didn't say anything. Go home to bed."
Jordan lurched along majestically, having shaken off his companion, who had learnt all he wanted to know. Ben came up to Renton with a smiling salute.
"I suppose you heard it all, sir," he said. "I saw you standing there in the shadow. Whatever game is on, it's about the neighborhood of the Lugger Bank, and Jordan's going to be there with the top of the tide in the morning."
"You've done very well, indeed," Renton said approvingly. "Seen any one else?"
"Yes, sir; there's a stranger stopping at Jordan's. He don't look like a seafaring man, but he's pretty handy on board a boat. He sailed Jordan's yesterday as well as I could. But I can't find anything out about him."
Renton nodded. He appeared to be quite satisfied.
"You have quite satisfied me," he said. "You will join the Queen of the Mist at Ancote before the tide turns. Good-night, Ben."
An hour later and Renton and Cathcart were back at their lodgings again. As yet Brodie had not returned. As they walked home-wards Renton pointed out a small tug lying at anchor in a little cove. Cathcart eyed her critically.
"Looks neglected and old fashioned," he said; "not at all the kind of boat one associates with a smart yachtsman like yourself."
"And yet she's wonderfully fast," Renton said with a smile. "As to the rest, the tug is carefully disguised. She looks like a lumper, and yet she could show her foot to many a trim launch at Cowes. And now let's go to bed. We shall have to be up and doing long before it's light."
"And the surprise?" Cathcart suggested.
"Oh, the surprise is coming. You'll have surprise and to spare before you have been between the blankets twice. I'm so tired that I can hardly keep my eyes open."
It seemed to Cathcart that he had hardly closed his eyes before there was a heavy knocking at his door, and be struggled slowly back to consciousness. By the time that he had dressed he found Renton and a large man in oilskins, who was introduced as John Brodie, at breakfast.
It was still quite dark when they turned out, with a suggestion of saffron light far away to the east. There was a fresh breeze off the land and a touch of raw cold in the air. But there was a sense of elation in the motion that lifted up Cathcart, and sent the blood tingling in his veins. There was a long line of pink flushing the horizon.
They were out at sea at length, and running freely before the breeze. Against the clear background they could see ships passing, big steamers with a long trail of smoke floating behind them.
Presently the swell grew short and choppy, and the Queen of the Mist passed over the shallow and dangerous waters of the Lugger Bank. A mile or two ahead a big steamer was crossing the bank. At a sign from Renton the helm was put up, and the Queen of the Mist lay sloping almost broadside on, like some clumsy fishing-boat badly manned and badly found.
"She'll pass without seeing us, sir," Brodie whispered hoarsely. "She's a fine boat, though she is so dirty. What do you make her name to be?"
The big steamer was coming nearer, looming out, clear-cut as a cameo, against the primrose of the breaking day.
"The Polly and the Paul," said Renton, lending his glasses to Cathcart. "Now I should like to know what you make of her."
Cathcart adjusted the focus. He stared long at the vessel. Then the glasses fell from his hand with a crash on the deck.
"Good heavens!" he cried. "It's impossible. Absolutely impossible. Why, I saw her go down to the bottom of the—Renton, I've been deceived—foiled in some strange manner. As I live it's the Lone Star."
"Right!" said Renton gravely. "There's one surprise for you. It is the Lone Star!"
Meanwhile Bath had braced himself up to face the inevitable. There were moments when his head was dizzy and weak, and he wondered feebly if the whole thing were not some hideous dream. It seemed almost impossible that he had come to this.
Still there was one desperate chance of pulling through. He might yet pluck the flower of safety from the nettle danger. In the first place, his absence from home would excite no comment. He would give it out that he was going away for the benefit of his health, taking care to make no fixed destination in case of awkward recognition.
He went as far as London alone, and from thence to Hull. In a little house in Sackville-road he received a rough but warm welcome. David Jordan, ex-pilot, would have welcomed anyone who brought him work to do and money to spend at that moment.
There was some consolation in the fact that Jordan knew his visitor only as James Stevens. Not that he had any curiosity any way. All he wanted was money, nor was he in the least particular how the money was to be earned. After the receipt of the mysterious telegram he awaited his visitor with considerable impatience.
They were not pleasant quarters in Sackville-street by any means. The house was small and dirty. Bath's fastidious nature shrunk from his plain food and the unsavory linen in his bedchamber. But it would not be for long.
"Now you can fire away," Jordan said as he lighted his pipe and filled his glass from a bottle of whisky, thoughtfully provided by the newcomer. "What's the game? What is it that you want me to do?"
"Have you been out in your boat lately?" Bath asked.
"I've been out in her every day," Jordan admitted. "Day by day for a fortnight, and not so much as a single job beyond the smuggling of a few pounds of tobacco. It's been a sober time."
"Well, this is going to be a good job for you," said Bath. "Did you happen to see anything afloat that puzzled you?"
Jordan nodded darkly.
"I did," he said. "A sort of dirty tramp steamer that I could not make head or tail of. Called herself the Polly and Paul. Sort of creeping along one hour, and a way of kicking ahead like a racehorse the next, especially when anything like a revenue boat happened along. Well?"
"Well, that's your boat. You've got to get her into one of the small ports here and unload her. She must come in on top of the tide, and she must come in the dark."
"Can't be done," Jordan said regretfully. "Why, we should have the coastguard and the Customs House people down upon us before we could drop anchor. If you've got any contraband—"
"There's not a pound of contraband aboard."
"Then why don't you port her same as any other boat?"
"Because we dare not. Suppose you insure a ship for a large fortune, and she goes to the bottom, what happens then?"
"You go and collar the plunder," Jordan said promptly.
"Of course. And suppose that after you have pocketed your money you find that your ship and valuable cargo is not lost at all. Nobody knows but you. You keep your information to yourself, and after disguising your ship carefully, you want to bring her into port and dispose of the cargo."
Jordan was loud in his approval. It was a scheme after his own heart.
"Crew in the secret?" he asked.
"Well, no," Bath replied. "They are all natives—Lascars. There are two white officers of sorts who imagine they are going gun-running. The Polly and Paul has been knocking about the North Sea waiting for orders, and with instructions not to be too conspicuous. They don't suspect anything."
Jordan pondered the question for some time. There was enough money in the business to keep him in comfort for some time, but as yet he had not the remotest idea of how it was to be done.
"When can we get aboard of her?" he asked.
"To-morrow night," Bath replied. "She will be off Stone Point then, and, in fact, I am expected with final instructions as to where the guns are to be picked up. Once the vessel is in port I pay off my hands with the intimation that the proposed expedition is abandoned, and there is an end of the matter so far as they are concerned."
Jordan nodded again. So far all was plain sailing. But the coastguard and the Customs people would be inquisitive once port was touched. As to the ship's papers, the pilot assumed that they would be all right. Nothing was easier to forge. But the real difficulty was the landing.
"I'll sleep on it," he said. "Once we are aboard I'll know better what to do."
The next day was a weary one for Bath. He longed to get away from the stuffy, ill-smelling little house, and to find himself on the blue water again. It was getting towards night when Jordan, in an uproarious mood, returned, accompanied by a little, smiling, smooth-mannered man, whom Bath regarded with uneasy suspicion. It was perhaps fortunate for the small man that he was not recognised.
"Friend of my friend Mostyn," Jordan remarked unsteadily. "Sent down to see that we behave ourselves. Goin' with us, he is."
Bath forced a smile. So Mostyn was not trusting him. If he had only guessed who the stranger was! Jordan produced Mostyn's letter of introduction, and winked with meaning as he handed it to Bath.
The latter read the letter carefully. Perhaps Mostyn did not mistrust him after all. It looked as if this shifty-eyed, smiling stranger had somehow got on the inside track of things, and had been sent down for the purpose of being out of the way. Well, Mostyn should not be disappointed. It was no time to stick at trifles.
Powell smiled and writhed uneasily. He knew perfectly well what was in that letter, and with that key in his possession he read Bath's thoughts. But he was going to be loyal to his new employers; he was filled with a certain desperate courage. If he stuck to Renton and Cathcart his future might be assured. Anyway he was in a position now to afford them valuable information.
It was long past midnight before Jordan's boat put out of port, and sailed away in the direction of Stone Point. The first grey streaks of dawn were shining in the east as the Polly and Paul loomed out of the mists. A little later and the pilot was aboard.
Bath drew a long sigh of relief. Powell had crept down to see the captain's cabin, where he lay torpid with all the horrors of sea-sickness. There was a sense of security in that heaving sea.
"Now let us hear your plans," Bath asked.
"Come down in the cabin," said Jordan. "I begin to see a way. Seems to me that it isn't an English port that we want at all."
He lumbered heavily down into the cabin, followed by Bath. Powell lay there in the bunk with the curtains drawn. He was in the torpid state that follows extreme sickness. Just at that moment he did not care whether he lived or died. Still he lay and listened. There are some men who will listen to anything, and Powell was one of them.
"We'll try one of the Norway or Sweden ports," said Jordan. "I could pilot you across there, and see you all snug, with my eyes blindfolded. No questions would be asked there. You could unload your cargo and dispose of it, and be back here again at the end of a fortnight. And if you wanted to dispose of this tricky old kettle, why, you could manage that as well."
"Capital!" Bath cried. "I never thought of that before. It shall be done."
They went eagerly into ways and means. Powell lay there listening with cold thrills of apprehension playing up and down his spine. So long as he was near shore he felt comparatively safe. But out at sea, with those two desperate men, both of whom had been advised in so many words to murder him!
The voices ceased. Bath and his companion left the cabin.
Powell crept out with all his sickness gone. He was waiting about for some way of escape, the ship was throbbing under his unsteady feet.
Ah, the machinery! It was like the works of a watch; and if somebody dropped a piece of iron or a bolt, or something of that kind on to the bed of one of the engines, why, nobody could answer for the consequences.
"I must find out," the little man whispered huskily. "I really must find out the engine-room."
Powell was still shaking from head to foot. To a certain extent he was taking his life in his hands, and he knew it. It had never occurred to the little man that he would be more or less kidnapped like this. He had been between the devil and the deep sea. Mostyn would not hesitate a moment to have him murdered if it suited his purpose to do so. And once the boat was in a foreign port anything was possible.
The thought of his danger had a bracing effect on Powell. He forgot his weakness for a moment. He would go on deck and ask a few questions. Most of the crew—indeed, all of them—were Lascars, but there were two men who called themselves officers who were white. Powell sidled up to one of them now, and his teeth chattered.
"Is it possible to get a drink?" he whispered. "I have money to pay for it, you know."
The grimy rascal in the tattered pea-jacket winked in a friendly fashion. He looked round him cautiously.
"I can manage it," he said. "The engineer's a Scotchman, and knows his way about. Show me half a sovereign, or something of that sort, and I'll show you the way. No drink is supposed to be aboard, mind you; at least, not for the present. Seems to me we're on a job that requires a cool head, or why should we be dodging every suspicious-looking craft that comes along? I'll get the liquor."
Powell fumbled in his pocket, and produced half-a-sovereign. The other man spat on it and disappeared. Presently he came back grinning with a glass and a bottle.
"Not here," Powell said hastily. "It's too cold. I'm starving. Your friend, the engineer—"
"Oh, he'll be glad enough to see you so long as you pay through the nose for your toddy. And if you want to get warm, why, down below is the place. Come along."
Powell's heart throbbed more quickly. It was all falling out very nicely. There were the furnaces, and there were the gleaming engines. The warmth crept into Powell's bones, and he glowed.
"Fine engines those," he said, as he took a pull at his glass. "Easy to damage, I suppose?"
The engineer nodded sourly as he polished some gleaming brass-work.
"Easy enough," he said, "if you know how; but dangerous, my friend—very dangerous."
Powell said no more, but his eyes were gleaming like live coals.
Cathcart stooped and picked up the battered glasses, he was perfectly calm again.
"For the life of me I cannot understand it at all," he said. "Despite a certain attempt at disguise and clumsiness, I recognise the Lone Star at a glance. You cannot deceive a man who has once sailed a ship. But how was it done?"
"It was done as I suspected from the beginning," Renton replied. "In the first place, you had a most indifferent crew. Even your officers were not above suspicion. Under your eyes the Lone Star was loaded with a valuable cargo, and everything was ready for sailing. Now, in the same port was another boat called the Lone Star, which was more or less the property of Mostyn and Co. She was not much of a boat, and so dirty that it was next to impossible to read her name. She was filled with any rubbish, and in a day was ready to sail, with a crew, such as it was. When James Stevens drugged you, he had you carried on the sham Lone Star, which Lone Star was put away by your scoundrelly chief mate, alias James Stevens, when you were supposed to be lying drunk in your cabin. Stevens got away for the simple reason that a certain yacht that was fortunately handy happened to be Mostyn's own, or, rather, one that he had hired in New York. He took care, also, to have a witness or two. Once in New York again, Stevens discreetly disappeared, and that is why there was no chief mate to give evidence at your trial."
Cathcart nodded; he was beginning to see things.
"But the real Lone Star would have to sail," he suggested.
"Yes, but not at the appointed time," Renton replied. "Her crew would be paid off, and quite another lot taken aboard and let into the secret that gun-running was the game. The name would be changed at sea, the ship disguised, and there you are. There was very little risk for Mostyn and Co. The crew were Lascars and the officers whites, but at the same time men of no particular nationality. It was long odds that not one of them ever heard of your little trouble, and if they did they would not have spoken—indeed, they couldn't, without awkward questions being asked about themselves. Mind you, I am working a good deal on theory, but I am pretty sure that I am not very far from the mark. They are going to put into some great port, where the crew will be an end of the matter. But one thing I am certain of—the valuable cargo that is the source of all the mischief lies snug in the hold of yonder vessel. Now, do you see?"
"Perfectly," said Cathcart. "It will be a fine scandal presently."
"Scandal or no scandal, I am not going to lose my ship," Renton said firmly. "Once in a foreign port, and the scoundrels will sell that as well. We are going to follow them wherever they go."
"They won't try and land her, then?"
"Well, I fancy that was the original idea. But when they come to talk the matter over, they will find that it is too risky a course. If there is one man who can pull them safely through these seas, it is Jordan. He knows the northern foreign parts as well as he knows our own. Norway or Sweden will be their mark."
It was growing daylight by this time, with a haze gradually falling. For a little time the Lone Star rolled clumsily along. A little after one o'clock there was a cloud of smoke from her funnels; she slid over the rolling seas at an astonishing rate.
"She's off!" Renton cried excitedly. "We shall be too late. She has got Jordan aboard, and they have made up their minds what to do. What a fool I was not to consult my first impression and put the matter into the hands of the law!"
"We ain't going to be too late, sir," Brodie remarked cheerfully. "Wherever they go, it will take a week to unload that cargo, and long before then we shall have picked up her tracks from other vessels. Even in a yacht like this it's no very far cry to the Norwegian coast."
Renton nodded moodily. By this time the fog had thickened till it was impossible to see two hundred yards ahead. The silence began to be broken by the boom and sob of many syrens. The wind had fallen, and the yacht rolled heavily in the trough of the sea.
"Nothing but to grin and bear it," said Renton. "They've poached a fine start of us, but the fog is in our favor."
"So that they can't make a good head of steam," Cathcart replied. "If only a revenue cutter would happen along!"
But no revenue cutter or anything of the kind came. The slow hours slid along till dusk began to fall. Brodie looked cheerfully at the mist overhead.
"Isn't going to last, sir," he said. "There'll be plenty of breeze. As soon as dusk comes the breeze will be on its back."
Half an hour later, and the curtain lifted slowly. There was a creamy swell, and almost immediately the fog vanished into nothingness. There were lights to be seen here and there. Two miles away, between the yacht and Stone Point, a long steamer was rolling to the swell of the incoming tide.
A cry of triumph burst from Renton's throat.
"The Lone Star and nothing else!" Cathcart exclaimed.
"You've got it right first time. The scoundrels have had it all their own way for a long while, but fortune is against them at last. She has had some accident to her machinery by the way she tilts. They are tied hand and foot until the necessary repairs are made."
"And meanwhile?" Cathcart asked significantly. "And meanwhile there is going to be no more playing with the thing. I'm going to pull back to Stone Point and get the aid of the police."
"And I'll come along," Cathcart volunteered.
"You will do nothing of the kind. You will stay here with the yacht, and keep an eye on things generally. Get the dinghey out, John."
Brodie demurred slightly. There was going to be a bit more wind presently. The tide was running all right, but it would not be safe for a dinghey.
"I tell you I'm going," Renton said doggedly. "I shall manage the dinghey all right, and if I do come to grief, I can swim."
"Not the Stone Point in these cross currents," Brodie muttered. "Still, you're master here, and I suppose you must have your own way."
The dinghey was lowered, and put off in a sea that Renton found a great deal less to his mind than he had imagined. But he pulled along manfully in the dying light, with the lantern of the lighthouse on Stone Point to guide him. He was wet through, and he had to pause more than once to bale out his boat. Presently he came so close to the Lone Star that he could hear the sound of the Lascars singing on board. He smiled grimly to himself.
"If Bath only knew!" he muttered. "If he only guessed how near I am to him he would send a shot through the dinghey. Well, he must make the most of his time. It's pretty nearly up, and the—Hullo!"
A bigger wave toppled over the side of the dinghey, pitching Renton forward. There was a perilous dip on the one side, followed by an unusual rush of water. The boat yawned round broadside to the swell, filled, and went down, leaving Renton struggling in the water. It was far colder than he had imagined. A cross-current was sweeping him far away from shore. Fine swimmer as he was, he struggled against it in vain. His heavy clothes were already becoming terribly irksome.
He was swept backwards close to the slimy hull of the Lone Star. With an effort he managed to reach the ladder. In spite of his danger there was a grim smile on Renton's face. It seemed strange that his ark of safety should be the Lone Star.
"I'm going to run the risk," he muttered.
He swarmed up the ladder and reached the deck, dripping from head to foot. As he climbed over the rail he came face to face with Bath, who was staring moodily before him and puffing gloomily at a long cigar. The cigar fell from his fingers. In the light of the lantern his face was sickly green.
"Renton!" he gasped. "Here! Why, what does this—"
He paused. He could say no more. Renton smiled cheerfully.
"No getting rid of me," he said. "Bit of a coincidence, though, meeting like this. Come down in the cabin and give me a change. No, you go first."
Bath stood there, unable to say more for the moment. He made not the slightest attempt to pick up the cigar that smouldered on the greasy deck at his feet.
Here was the very last man in the world that he had expected to see, the one he most dreaded. And they met face to face thus on Renton's own ship. Bath wondered if he would recognise it. There was very little about ocean-going craft of any kind that Renton was not familiar with.
Bath was thinking with lightning rapidity. He wondered if this were part of some cunning trap, or merely a staggering and stupendous coincidence. If Renton had come aboard in the conventional manner, Bath would have been a great deal easier in his mind.
But he must be up and doing something, he told himself; he must shake off that dazed feeling. Renton was smiling in the friendliest possible manner. It must be coincidence, after all.
"How did you get here?" Bath asked vaguely.
"I was doing some yachting," the involuntary guest explained. "I put off in the dinghey to make Stone Point, and the sea was rougher than I expected. But a change of clothing—"
"Of course," Bath said hurriedly. "Come this way."
Renton stepped along as if he expected nothing, suspecting nothing. Bath followed. He was keeping the fact to himself in a most marvellous manner.
"I suppose you are going on a voyage in this tramp," he said cheerfully. "Well, you might do worse. You'll get all the air you want, and you won't have any champagne and cigars. Where are you bound for?"
"I don't know," Bath said recklessly. "I—I never asked. I am sick of routine, and only too glad to have no programme. I suppose we are bound for some northern port, but it is all the same to me."
Renton changed leisurely.
Bath watched him with an impatience that was almost uncontrollable. If he could only get his guest away!
"Won't your friends be anxious about you?" he suggested.
"Not a bit of it," Renton replied. "They don't expect me back to-night. And they would have to run before the breeze. Besides, you've got nothing in the way of a boat I should care to venture in so long as this wind holds good. I guess I'm here till your machinery's repaired. Is it much?"
"Jambed shaft, I understand," said Bath. "Some fool dropped a bolt into the bed of one of the engines. A few hours, and we shall be under weigh again. We have only one English officer aboard."
Jordan came clattering down the ladder into the cabin. His face was a little anxious and disturbed. He wanted no strangers aboard at that moment.
"This is Captain—er—Jordan," Bath said curtly.
Renton nodded. Jordan seemed to be affected with a sudden cold, for his face was half-hidden in a huge red handkerchief. The lantern lights of the cabin were dim, and Renton appeared to know nothing. With a gesture to Bath, Jordan muttered something, and slipped away up the ladder again.
The ex-pilot's eyes were all agog, his ponderous cheeks shook in an agitated manner. He seemed to be greatly disturbed about something. Not without apprehension of some new danger, Bath went on deck.
"Here's a nice mess." Jordan said dolefully.
"Well, what's the matter now?" Bath asked.
"Why, this 'ere chap as comes out of nowhere, and finds himself aboard of his own blessed boat. He knows me."
"So long as he doesn't know his own boat, what does it matter?" Jordan spat with great contempt.
"Course he knows it," he growled. "There isn't a finer sailor afloat than Mr. Renton. Why, you might just as well expect to deceive a mother over her own baby by dressing it up in new rigging. Mr. Renton has spotted the boat and I ain't sure as he hasn't spotted me."
"But you've never met before?"
"We ain't been introduced, and we ain't dined at the R.Y.S. together. But when I had my little misfortune and lost my certificate, Mr. Renton was at the bottom of it. Bless your soul! he knows where he is as well as if he were in his own bedroom. It's all part of a plant, and if something isn't done soon, you and I will find ourselves where our creditors can't come near us."
Bath clutched at the rail passionately. It seemed hard to have everything slipping away. Just as he had fortune in his grasp, Renton had come along. It would be impossible for anybody to prove his presence except Seth Powell. The Lascars would ask no questions. Bath's thoughts were as dark as the night above him.
"We must get those chaps out of the way," Jordan suggested hoarsely.
"Yes, but how? Do you understand that you are—"
"I understand plain English," he said doggedly. "I say we must get those chaps out of the way. We shall never have a better opportunity. We'll bore a hole in one of the boats before we sail—"
"But when are we going to sail?"
"Within twelve hours—perhaps before dawn. There's a nigger helping down in the engine-room who's a born engineer. We'll bore a hole in one of the boats and sink her. He will say our two visitors went off in her. If we don't do it, you and I are booked for a gaol certain."
Bath could see that plainly. How much truth there was in Renton's statement he was not in a position to say. But the man was aboard, and it was pretty certain that he had not failed to recognise his own ship. That being so, why had he kept the knowledge to himself? He was not in the least surprised: evidently he had known exactly where he was coming to.
"A hot grog with a pinch or two of snuff in it," Jordan said apropos of nothing.
"Later on," Bath said with a shudder. A sudden sense of nausea came over him. He had gone very far—he was utterly reckless and unscrupulous, but as yet he had not contemplated murder.
"Because I may think of a better plan," he concluded. "Still, if the worst come to the worst, I shall not hesitate. You stay on deck; you are safer there."
Meanwhile Renton was finishing his toilette in the cabin. He was looking round and smiling, with the air of a man who is perfectly satiated with himself. He was hunting about for tobacco, when a white, scared face looked out of the gloom beyond the circle of flame made by the lamp.
"So you got here, Powell," Renton said coolly. "What's the matter?"
Powell wiped the sickly moisture from his forehead.
"Murder's the matter," he whispered. "I don't know whether to be glad or sorry that you have come, sir. I carried out your instructions, sir; but I wouldn't have such a time again for all the money in the world. They were going to get rid of me, and now they are going to get rid of you."
"How do you know that, Powell?"
"I listened," said Powell; "I'm always listening. I have found out that this is the Lone Star that was supposed to be at the bottom of the sea, and that let me into the secret. They know why you are here, and Jordan doesn't believe that you fail to recognise your own boat. It's to be a case of doctored whisky and water for you. And if anything happens to you heaven only knows what will become of me."
Powell's voice was shaking with terror. His white face shone in the feeble light.
"I shall pull through all right," Renton said carelessly. "I had either to come aboard or be drowned. I knew that I was taking a big risk, but forewarned is forearmed. I shall get the better of those rascals yet."
Powell shook his head doubtfully.
"I wish I was well out of it," he said. "If I can do anything—"
"You can do a great deal; you can keep your eyes open. Whilst our friends are planning one coup I am after another. Now, go away."
The white face disappeared in the gloom as Bath came down the ladder again. He was cheerful and chatty. On the face of it the two men appeared to be the best of friends.
How much did Renton know? Bath asked himself the question again and again. The question was very difficult to answer. It was hardly possible to suppose that Renton's presence here just now was due to a mere coincidence. And yet there was nothing antagonistic about the intruder. He sat there under the brilliant rays of the swinging lamp in the cabin smoking tranquilly, and remarking that the wind was getting up, and they were likely to have a rough night of it.
The position was a desperate and tempting one for Bath. Renton was alone and friendless here, and Jordan was ready to commit murder cheerfully enough, if he were paid for it. If the Lone Star could only be run into some northern port, her valuable cargo could be disposed of, and the yacht sold. And this meant everything to Bath. He was not quite a judge yet, but the fact that he had been appointed to take the Lewton Assizes as commissioner paved the way to the next vacancy.
An occupant of the judicial bench or what? Honored and looked up to, on the one hand, or likely to share the fate of the vilest criminal? The next few days would show. Renton out of the way, the thing could easily be managed. And once the business was settled, and Bath drew his share of the plunder, nothing would induce him to have anything to do with Mostyn again. He would have enough to free himself from all anxiety for the future.
And all this time Renton was smoking as if nothing had happened. Did he recognise the Lone Star, or did he not? Nobody could possibly have said from the look of his face. Hitherto Bath had regarded his companion as a commonplace mind; now he began to have his doubts.
"Going to be a very bad night," Renton said. "If they don't get that damage repaired before long, we shall be in considerable danger, too."
A heavy gale struck the yacht, so that she reeled to it and her decks ran with water. Renton looked grave, as well he might. So long as they could get no way on the yacht, she was in danger, seeing that she had so little sea room. On deck the sailors were trampling and swearing, Jordan's big voice was booming. Another wave struck the ship, and she quivered like an animal in pain.
The gale was waking up quicker than Renton liked or expected. He had forgotten everything now, save the fact that there was danger aboard. After all he did not want to lose his yacht, if he could help it. And those in the conspiracy were equally anxious for freedom and for sea room. If the Lone Star ran aground all their efforts would be in vain. The yacht would be recognised, and her cargo exposed to prying eyes.
"I'll go down to the engine-room," Renton exclaimed, as he pitched away his cigar. "Those engines—"
He paused suddenly and strode from the room. He had very nearly betrayed himself by speaking in a familiar way about the engines. The yacht was dirty, and seemed to be ill-found, but Renton could see beyond all these paltry disguises. It only wanted smart hands aboard to make the Lone Star as trim and as neat as ever. And what an ingenious plot it had all been, to be sure!
The fires were banked up, but the useless engines stood still. Renton's practised eye could see that there was nothing very badly damaged; still there was danger, and the engines for the moment were as useless as if they had been so much scrap-iron.
"If I can't manage it, you can't," the engineer said sulkily. "What do you want here?"
"You're drunk," Renton said pithily. "You're too drunk to understand anything."
The engineer lunged at Renton, who stepped back and shot out an arm that caught the Scotchman full on the point of the chin. With his teeth chattering together he went down like an empty sack. It was coming to him slowly that he had a man to deal with.
"Perhaps you can show me what's wrong," he sneered, as he wiped the blood from his face.
Renton said nothing; he was more busily engaged. He could see that the damage was local. Another wave struck the boat, and she shuddered from stem to stern. The pounding sea boomed heavily on her decks.
Again the heavy wave came, and again did the Lone Star pitch up her bows. If she could not be brought up to the sea, she would drift ashore to a certainty. She might yaw-to presently, and capsize. Jordan was doing his best, but the yacht was like a bird with a broken wing. Renton looked up to see a white, uneasy face regarding him and making signs. He recognised the sodden face of Powell.
"Well, what is it?" he asked impatiently, as he climbed the ladder. "You can't be of any assistance, man."
"Oh, yes, I can," Powell gasped. "It was before you came, sir. I had no notion of being carried to a distant country or being, perhaps, murdered on the way. So I just slipped a bolt under what you call those bearings, when the engineer wasn't—"
Renton waited for no more. Like a flash he understood what Powell's motive was, and what he had done. He roused up the engineer, who sat snoring on an upturned basket.
"Uncouple these plates," he said. "I've found the mischief. For heaven's sake, man, be sharp. Who knows what may happen to us if this goes on much longer? Give me the wrench."
The drunken engineer complied sleepily. An assistant, looking on, began to take his orders instinctively from Renton. The plates were lifted at last, and there lay the cause of all the mischief.
"Got it," Renton said, between his teeth. "There, you look like a fellow with some brains. How long will it take you and me to repair the damage? Yonder drunken pig doesn't count."
"It's a matter of heating and bending, sir," the assistant engineer said crisply enough. "And hours perhaps. And as like or not the old boat—"
"May not last an hour, you were going to say. We've got to run the risk of that. Get into it."
They worked till the perspiration poured off their faces, worked with the boat lurching and pitching and groaning as if she were falling all to pieces. But gradually the mischief was repaired, gradually the bent machinery fitted and coupled again. The furnaces glowed white in the light of the engine room; Renton reached over and pulled a couple of levers.
"You know what you're about, you do," the amateur assistant engineer said admiringly.
Renton said nothing by way of suggestion that he ought to know something about his own engines. But it was doubtful even if he heard the compliment. The sliding rods and cranks worked stiffly, gathering life as they moved. Then from end to end of the ship came the pulsating thrill of the screw.
"Saved," Renton said between his teeth. "But it has been as near a thing as ever I saw. Get up, you sweep, and do your work, or I'll pound you to jelly."
With an effort the big Scotchman pulled himself together. The slide and swing of the machinery seemed to have a tonic effect upon him. There was a roar from the deck, and the engine-room bells began to speak. Jordan stood at the wheel, and in the pitch darkness Renton crossed over to his side. Jordan was thanking his lucky stars that it was too dense to see his features.
"Push her over harder," Renton suggested. "We can weather round, and make for the open."
"Can't," Jordan said hoarsely. "I've dislocated my wrist. If I'd got anybody here with a rap—"
"Give me the tiller," Renton commanded. "I'm at home here. Let's have it, man."
Jordan relinquished his occupation with a sigh of relief. He knew that he could trust Renton, whose knowledge of landmarks was practically as good as his own. With infinite difficulty Renton brought the yacht up into the wind. She quivered and thrashed, making little headway, her decks were washed with the breaking seas, but she had ceased to roll, and the terrible danger was past. It was only a matter of seamanship now.
"If you held on to her for an hour or so," Jordan suggested, "perhaps I could—"
"I'll hold on to her all night," Renton said between his teeth. "Don't worry about me."
Jordan rolled heavily below, leaving Renton master of the situation. The dawn came presently, red and angry, with a promise of more wind, and all day Renton hung on whilst Jordan skulked below. The wind had fallen, and the stars came out, and Jordan appeared again.
"I'll take her now," he said hoarsely. "You've had a fine spell, my lad. An hour's sleep will do you good."
"About two hours, but certainly not more," Renton told himself. Already he had pretty well made up his mind what to do. With his wet clothes still on he flung himself down in the cabin, and slept like a child. And yet it only seemed a few minutes before he began to dream, dream of great lights flashing into his eyes, and dangers close at hand. Renton struggled back to consciousness, and sat up.
The cabin lantern was out, and yet a great white glare streamed in through the portholes. Where it came from, and what it was Renton could not imagine for a moment. He looked uneasily around him, suspicious and alert now. The light across the cabin was in a white, dazzling sheet, with the rest of the cabin in darkness. And beyond the darkness a figure lurked, a figure with something murderous-looking in its hand.
Renton jumped to his feet. He could not make the outline of the figure. It was Bath, and his errand could be guessed at by the life-preserver in his hand. Just for a moment Renton shuddered, then be recovered himself again. His line of action came to him like an inspiration.
"Is that you Cathcart?" he whispered. "I've been wondering where you had got to."
Bath started, and something like a cry escaped him. He had utterly forgotten Cathcart. What was the object of getting Renton out of the way, so long as Cathcart remained. And softly as he had come, he crept from the cabin, shaking in every limb and perspiring at every pore. He had been very near to a useless and altogether unnecessary murder. And the risks had been very small.
"So that was the scoundrel's game," Renton muttered. "Well, it shall be added to the account to be paid in full when the proper time comes. I've got to thank this light for saving me. What is it, and where does it come from?"
Renton thrust his head out of one of the portholes. Lying alongside was a small steam yacht, with her brilliant searchlight full on the Lone Star. Then the light went up and came down on the deck of the yacht, throwing up the figures there in brilliant relief.
"Mostyn!" Renton cried. "Mostyn and Grace Ives and Russet Ray! What does this mean?"
When Bath went to Hull, and he was left to himself, Mostyn felt that a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Bath all along had proved a valuable ally, but he indulged occasionally in a conscience, which, to an utterly unscrupulous man like Mostyn, was irritating and dangerous. Inch by inch he had dragged Bath from the straight path, and now the latter would have to play an active part in the conspiracy.
Therefore he had set Bath to work. Once the latter's hand was fairly to the plough he could not look back. Mostyn was free for the moment to look after his own affairs.
And they wanted it badly enough. If the Lone Star could have been safely brought to port, and her cargo sold, Mostyn would be on his legs again. Under the suspicious circumstances of the case it had looked well not to try and obtain the insurance money for the yacht. It looked so honorable, Mostyn told himself. The insurance money had been drawn for the cargo, and the Lone Star was still afloat; the money for that could go. The other Lone Star had hardly been worth the copper sheathing on her bottom.
To the future Mostyn looked with confidence. He could trust Bath's discretion and cunning. Once the matter was done with he would possess over fifty thousand pounds in hard cash. He would pay certain creditors and make a fresh start. But if this thing failed, then something worse than ruin stared him in the face. There are scores of Mostyns in the City of London, some of whom are found out and punished, whilst others are lucky, and emerge from the hazard as really rich men.
Mostyn was busy enough now, with his papers about him and his telephone to his hand. He got through his letters in his quick, dashing way till he came nearly to the bottom of the pile. There was one here that he did not like at all—a curt intimation from his bankers that he must not draw any further cheques till he had discussed certain matters with the manager.
Mostyn muttered an oath as he reached for his hat. He would go and settle the matter at once. His quick, bullying manner had frequently got him out of tighter places than this. At the bank he was received with deference. Mr. Sylvester was engaged for the moment, would Mr. Mostyn be so good as to step into the waiting room?
"Go and see that the fire is all right, Stennard," the cashier said.
Mostyn followed young Raymond Stennard into the room. He was not so preoccupied with his own affairs that he failed to see how wretchedly pale and ill the boy looked. His lips were trembling like one on the verge of paralysis, the eyes were large and staring.
"What on earth is the matter with you?" he demanded in his quick, hectoring way.
Stennard closed the door, and came back to the hearthrug where the financier was standing. Just for a moment he looked as if he would fly out at him like a hunted stag at bay.
"You know," he whispered hoarsely. "Who knows better than yourself, sir? It's all about that bank pass-book of Mr. Cathcart's. Oh, you scoundrel!"
Mostyn fell back astonished. If Stennard had struck him he could not have been more amazed. The boy's eyes were blazing like stars.
"What on earth do you mean?" he demanded.
"As if you did not know! You pretended to be my friend. And you get me to let you have that pass-book. You pretend that you want it for a good purpose. And your purpose is to ruin Mr. Cathcart. I don't know why, but that's what you meant. I read the whole of that trial carefully; and it's my duty to tell the truth when the time comes."
"You fool!" Mostyn cried. "You don't understand. If you dare to say a word I'll ruin you. Hush! You are raising your voice too high. I'll have a word with you presently."
Stennard bent over the fire as the cashier came in with a message to Mostyn. He had been very near to shouting his secret aloud to all who cared to listen. Alarmed and uneasy as he was, Mostyn put the incident resolutely out of his mind for the present. He laid certain documents before the bank manager without a single word; nobody would suggest that they were forgeries. The manager apologised for the trouble that he had caused Mr. Mostyn, but really his directors—
"Oh, I know the old tale," Mostyn sneered. "Lock them up for me. If this sort of thing occurs again, Sylvester, I shall remove my account. There, you need not say another word. By the way, I have been talking to young Stennard, who is a neighbor of mine. He seemed wretchedly ill and broken down. His mother is a very dear friend of mine, and for her sake—suppose you give him a few days' holiday, and I'll take him up north in my yacht. If you can spare him to-day—"
"It's very good of you," Sylvester said. "Yes, Stennard can go at once. The boy really is ill."
A few moments later and Mostyn was striding back to his office with Raymond Stennard by his side. Mostyn had got his own way, as he invariably did when he made up his mind to do a thing. Bath had been quite right in the reading of the boy's character. Timid and cowardly in the ordinary way, if he were pushed too far he would go to the other extreme. The boy was half-mad with terror, and the working of his troublesome conscience. It only wanted a little to make him break out into a full confession.
Therefore he must be got away. At any moment a telegram might come from Bath, and then it would be necessary to proceed north, and keep an eye upon things. Mostyn had no yacht at present, but his credit was good, and it would be an easy matter to hire one. He would keep an eye upon Stennard, and take him along. Once he was under that masterful sway he would have no more yearning to tell the truth.
"You are going straight home," Mostyn said. "Go home and get to bed. My boy, you are quite mistaken. It is both of us who have been deceived. I shall be able to prove it to you when the time comes. Suppose I were to tell Mr. Sylvester about you. What would your mother say?"
"Don't sir," Stennard groaned; "I can't bear to think of it."
"Then don't you be a fool. Everything will come out right in the end. Go and have a good long sleep. A few days on the yacht will be the making of you. You'll have to ask my forgiveness on your knees."
Stennard looked up with a half-hopeful expression. In spite of everything he did not like this man. He mistrusted him. But for the present he would say nothing. In a dazed kind of way he walked in the direction of the station. The sun looked vague and misty, his head was curiously light and queer. He was back at home at length. Here was his mother in the garden talking to Russet Ray. Raymond had half-forgotten who she was. He had to pull himself together before he could explain things.
"I'm glad my uncle persuaded them to give you a rest," Russet Ray said in her pleasant way. "Poor boy, you look dreadful! You had better get him to bed, Mrs. Stennard, and take that paper from him."
Stennard relinquished the early edition of the evening paper that he had bought quite mechanically at the station, and walked slowly into the house. Russet was smiling still, but there were painful thoughts behind that smooth brow of hers. It was no ordinary illness that made Raymond Stennard look like that. The aspect was one of guilty remorse. And Russet knew quite well that somebody in the bank had given George Cathcart's pass-book to Mostyn. Mostyn had taken Stennard up lately. Russet did not like to think these things, but they were forced upon her.
And now Mostyn was certainly going to take this boy on a yachting cruise. That was because he was fearful lest Raymond should speak.
"I beg your pardon," Russet said. "You were saying something to me, dear Mrs. Stennard. Oh, yes; he does look very ill indeed; but I don't think that I should send for a doctor yet. Get him into bed and to sleep if you possibly can. Good-bye."
Russet walked away thoughtfully. She had much to occupy her attention. And she had not heard anything of George Cathcart lately. She wondered what he and Renton were doing. In the porch Lottie Farr met her with a dainty little note. It was from Grace Ives, saying that she was very lonely at Langdean Cross, and proposed, if Russet had no objection, to come over to dinner.
Seldom had Mostyn come home on better terms with himself. Things had gone very well with him all day. He began to see his way clear of the mess, and if only Bath were successful in his present enterprise he was certain to emerge triumphant from all his difficulties.
Russet had rarely seen him so pleasant and amiable. He expressed himself delighted to know that Grace was coming to dinner. Later on, when time permitted, he intended to go more into society. For the present he had no leisure to cultivate the gentler arts, and he hoped the girls would put up with him. He had letters to write, but he would be quite finished by dinner-time.
Grace came at length in a smart dog-cart from Langdean Cross. She had brought her dinner-dress along, and she had for once dispensed with her maid. She and Russet would dress each other. The girl looked very sweet and dainty presently in her white gown with the roses at her breast. She was very lovely and fragile. Russet thought the sad droop of her lips was more pronounced than usual.
"You look as if a puff of wind would blow you away," Russet said. "Dearest, what is the matter?"
With a crimson flush Grace declared that she had never been better in her life, but her eyes were bright with tears. Russet crossed over and kissed her tenderly.
"I am going to be rude," she said; "I am going to be curious. Is it Douglas Renton?"
"Douglas Renton and myself are little more than strangers," Grace said.
"Oh, fie! As if you did not love him, Grace! And he loves you dearly. He told me so."
"He told you so! My dear Russet, if that is a fact—why—But it is useless to discuss the matter further."
"I'm telling the truth, dearest. I ought perhaps to have kept my own counsel. But when I see your sweet face like that! You think that Douglas has avoided you, Grace. Well, he has. But there has been a reason why he has been bound to do so. Ah, you will see presently!"
Russet's voice had dropped to a thrilling whisper. She glanced round the room fearfully, as if the walls had ears. Grace looked at her with a certain shy surprise.
"But why this mystery?" she asked. "Douglas was free of the house. Sir Cyril Bath—"
"Dearest, I cannot tell you. You must not even ask me. Even to you I dare not tell my secret. But Douglas loves you truly and tenderly as surely as there is a Heaven above us. You are too pure and transparent to be told everything, and the future of an innocent man rests upon the secret being kept. Douglas will speak when the time comes, and when he does you will admit that he has acted for the best."
Grace sighed as she replaced the roses in her breast The news seemed almost too good to be true. Douglas Renton had made love to her at one time, and she had given her trusting heart to his keeping. True, he had not asked her to be his wife, but there had been no need for a declaration like that. And then he had cooled off: he had come and gone again like a stranger, and Grace had wet her pillow with her tears.
"It is very strange," she said drearily. "My guardian seemed to think that Douglas cared for me. He seemed to be very anxious about it. And one night they were smoking in the garden whilst I was in my room. I could not help hearing that they were talking about me. Sir Cyril was rallying Douglas about me. And Douglas said that, much as he admired me, there were other qualities that he looked for in his wife when he married, which he had not the remotest idea of doing at present."
"And all this after Douglas had shown that he cared for you?"
"Yes, dear. Of course I ought to have been cold and distant, but I—I couldn't. And he was always so honorable and upright. Still, if you say it is all going to be explained some day—"
Russet nodded vehemently. She could say no more; indeed, she felt that she had said too much already. She could tell Grace nothing of the meshes, of the conspiracy and fraud in which she was entangled.
"I pledge you my word," she said. "You look fragile and slight; and yet I believe that you would go through a great deal for the man you loved."
"Oh, indeed, I would," Grace said. "I shrink and I am afraid, but when the time comes I hardly know myself. But do not let us talk any further about it, Russet dear. You have made me happier than I had ever hoped to be again. There! I have actually forgotten to put the roses in your hair."
Mostyn came into the drawing-room as the dinner-gong clanged out. A large diamond gleamed in the front of his shirt. He had a fine air of prosperity. He was clumsily polite, and loudly congratulated himself that he had the monopoly of so much grace and beauty.
"We'll have more people down here presently," he said. "I'll get Russet to entertain. Now, come along to dinner. I have an extra good appetite to-night. Come along."
The dinner was served in the great dining-room, with the old panelled walls and priceless silver and pictures. Everything there spoke of refinement and prosperity. It seemed hard to believe that the man who sat at the head of the table, with its shaded lights and flowers and sparkling crystal, was no more than a penniless adventurer. He might end as a rich man yet, and he might end in the dock. There were wines of the most costly kind, fruit from all parts of the world. The flowers themselves would have cost a small fortune. There was a strong contrast between Mostyn and the graceful, beautiful girls on both sides of him.
"I suppose I can't keep you here for ever," he said with a sigh as the footman cleared the table. "I'll have a cigarette or two, and then I'll join you in the drawing-room. You'll give us some music?"
Russet nodded and smiled. Mostyn, as a judge of music, amused her. Not once in a month did Mostyn ever come to the drawing-room. The girls were discussing him as they sipped their coffee.
"He is a mystery," Russet said. "I can never make him out."
"You are both mysteries," Grace laughed. "I don't believe you are any relation to that man at all. Some day I shall ask him and insist upon an answer. What's that."
Grace started as a hard, shrill laugh came again, and then a hand was laid upon the long French window and the casement fell noisily back.
The girls stood together with an instinctive feeling that something was going to happen. The queer laugh that sounded almost like a cry, the hand thrust into the room—everything pointed to something mysterious and out of the common. Then a body followed the hand.
It was a strange-looking figure that staggered into the room—the figure of a young man dressed in a sleeping suit, his feet cut and bruised as if he had come headlong over hedge and ditch, with no heed for the consequences. His face was white and hot, his eyes gleamed brilliantly.
"Raymond Stennard," Russet whispered. "The poor fellow has gone mad. Poor boy!"
It was Stennard sure enough. There was a certain amount of method in his madness, for he appeared to be seeking for something; a paper was tightly clenched in his hand. The girls watched him peering about the room in dazed fascination. Stennard had not seen them as yet.
"Where is he?" the boy muttered "Where is he hiding from me? He's afraid that I shall tell the truth. I saw it in his eyes this morning. Tell me where he is. You know."
He had caught sight of Russet at last, but there was not the slightest recognition in his gaze. Russet's heart beat a little faster, but she did not ring the bell or call for assistance. This poor lad was not suffering from any ordinary illness, she thought. He was evidently in an acute stage of brain fever, brought on by some worry or trouble or remorse.
"Tell me what you are looking for?" Russet asked quietly.
"Oh, how can you be so brave?" Grace whispered. "I am frightened to death. Let me ring—"
Russet laid a hand on her companion's arm and repeated the question to Stennard. Some half-gleam of sense crept into his wild eyes at last.
"Mostyn," he said hoarsely. "I am looking for Mostyn. He promised me it would be all right. He promised to tell the truth. Why should an innocent man suffer? Why doesn't he stand up and say that Cathcart is not guilty?"
Russet thrilled at the mention of her lover's name. So, after all, Raymond Stennard knew a great deal more than he cared to say. Russet had suspected it for some time now. She had been almost sure when she came face to face with Stennard a few hours ago. The boy had been half-mad with remorse and fear; the strain had broken him down.
"What does Mr. Mostyn know?" Russet asked quietly.
"He knows everything. He told me he would explain in time, but he does not mean to do so. He said his hands were clean, but he lied. Why did he get me to procure Cathcart's pass-book from the bank unless he wanted to put that forged letter into it?"
Russet thrilled again. Stennard might be mad, but there was no mental delusion here. Somebody had procured that pass-book and handed it to Mostyn without a doubt, and who was more likely to do it than the poor creature standing there at that moment?
"But why did you do so wrong a thing?" Russet asked.
"I had to," Stennard cried. "I was forced into it. I had been gambling, and there were certain little sums of money that I could not replace. And Mostyn found it out, as he finds out everything. He promised to be my friend; he gave me the sum necessary to put me straight again. And he wanted Cathcart's pass-book to see if he were gambling too. Where is the scoundrel?"
Stennard's voice rose into a scream of fury; the question rang all over the house. It was impossible not to hear it from the servants' hall to the dining-room. Mostyn heard it, and pitched his cigarette hastily aside. He did not know as yet the deep meaning of the question, and yet he had not failed to recognise the voice.
Mostyn burst into the drawing-room pausing in astonishment just for a moment, before the full significance of the scene was borne in upon him. Stennard had gone mad, and consequently Stennard must be removed before he had a chance to say too much.
"It has come to this," Mostyn said as he bustled up to his victim. "Poor fellow, I daresay he has been telling you some strange things, Russet."
Russet forgot her prudence for the moment—forgot how much depended upon her discretion. The conspiracy against George Cathcart was vile enough in any case, but it seemed viler still when Russet considered how the tool had been obtained, and how it had been used.
"Yes," she said coldly. "He has told me about Mr. Cathcart's pass-book, and how it got into your hands. I could not possibly have listened to a more disgraceful—"
"Mad," Mostyn muttered between his teeth. "Softening of the brain. Let me take you home."
The speaker reached out for Stennard with a cruel grip. He longed to take the boy by the throat and choke the life out of him. Mostyn was one who generally saw the weak sides of a case, but never for a moment had he dreamt of a development like this. He glanced from the pale face with its blazing eyes to Russet's icy features, and he read her condemnation there.
"Come home, you poor, chattering idiot," he said. "If your mother had any sense—"
"Stop!" Stennard cried. He started back and took up from a table a long, slim Burmese dagger that usually did service for a paper knife. "You loathsome scoundrel, if you come near me again I'll plunge this knife into your black heart. You ruined Cathcart, and you have ruined me body and soul. I was merely weak when I met you first, and now I am a criminal. I took the book at your instigation, and you placed the letter there. If I had only known—if I had only known!"
"Clearly mad," Mostyn said uneasily.
"And yet it sounds probable and so truthful," Russet could not help saying.
Mostyn glanced at her murderously. Grace saw the look and trembled
"It's all a conspiracy," Stennard cried. "Cathcart was to go to prison and Renton was to be got out of the way. And now Douglas Renton is drowned!"
A quick, pained cry broke from Grace. She would have fallen but for Russet's loving arm about her.
"It's all here," Stennard went on tapping the paper which he held in so close a grip. "He was yachting in the North Sea, and a dinghey upset and he was drowned. That's as far as we know at present. Perhaps he was murdered. As a friend of Cathcart's it was necessary to get him out of the way."
Mostyn was listening intently. He was picking up information now.
"How do you know all this?" he asked sharply.
"I saw them together; they were together when they found me by the docks, and I showed them Seth Powell."
Russet ran forward, heedless of Stennard's restless dagger. Up to now the boy's passing madness had all been on her side; but he was playing Mostyn's game now. And Mostyn was learning many things that were new to him—all about Seth Powell and Gracie's love for Renton, for instance.
He was going to learn more. But Russet was too sharp for him. Love lent her courage. She laid her hand on Stennard's arm and looked pitifully into his face. As their eyes met the boy seemed vaguely to be conscious of the presence of a friend. His arm dropped to his side, the dagger fell harmlessly to the floor.
"Go home and go back to bed," Russet said soothingly. "It will be all right. You can trust me."
"Oh, yes, I can trust you," was the vague reply. "I know you now. And I can hear my mother's voice."
The distressed plaint of Mrs. Stennard could be heard in the hall. She was half wild with terror and distress. She burst into tears, as she caught sight of her boy. Would somebody procure her a blanket and a pair of boots. Mostyn by an effort forced a smile to his face.
"It's all very sad," he said; "but he'll be better in the morning. I am going to take him for a sea voyage. Oh, it will be no trouble, I assure you. Now get him off to bed."
The house became quiet again. Mostyn strode off to his study with plenty to occupy his attention. Grace sat crying quietly before the fire.
"Do you think it can possibly be true?" she moaned.
Russet looked up hastily from the paragraph she had been reading. It was impossible to say. George Cathcart might know, but there was no means of communicating with him.
"We'll hope for the best," Russet said cheerfully. "Douglas Renton is a fine swimmer. He might have been picked up. Oh, I wish that poor boy had not come here to-night! He has betrayed things that Mr. Mostyn was not intended to know. Grace, you are going to stay here to-night. I shall send the car away when it comes. Go up to my room and wait for me there. I shall not be long."
Grace went wearily upstairs. She had had a staggering blow. It was only in the last few minutes that she had realised how much she cared for Renton. With a firm step and a sad face Russet proceeded to the study. Mostyn was sitting there moodily smoking. His eyes flashed a challenge.
"You have come to know all about it?" he asked sneeringly.
"It seems to me that I know already," Russet said. "Clearly mad as that poor fellow is—"
"If you admit that, why go any further? Do you suppose that statement would pass in evidence?"
"I know nothing whatever about evidence," Russet said coldly. "I believe it, that's all. Raymond Stennard was telling no more or less than the truth. He stole that pass-book and handed it to you. If I were to say all I know now, backed up with what I have heard to-night, your position would not be a pleasant one."
Once again the murderous gleam crept into Mostyn's eyes. His glance was plain enough to Russet, but she affected not to heed it. Mostyn forced a laugh to his lips. He made a not quite unsuccessful attempt to pass as an honest, open-minded man.
"It looks bad, I admit," he said. "But I can prove that my hands are clean. And you will see young Stennard asking my forgiveness yet. When he comes back from his voyage he will be a different lad. And, by the way, why shouldn't you and Grace come along? I'm going into the North Sea, and if poor Renton is really drowned, why, she may have the melancholy satisfaction—"
Mostyn paused as if unable to proceed. Like a flash Russet saw everything. She saw all the other dangerous witnesses were to be got out of the way for the time being. The idea suddenly came to Mostyn, and he had lost no time in carrying it out. There was danger here, as Russet knew. She felt that Mostyn would not hesitate to put her and all of them out or the way, if necessary. But she would be near to watch him, and perhaps to checkmate his vile plans. All this flashed across Russet's mind in an instant but she replied at once:
"I will not call you guilty yet," she said. "The voyage will be delightful. When do we start?"
"To-morrow, from Scarborough. I'll telephone to-night. We shall be away about a week."
Mostyn turned to his writing-table as if the subject and Russet were both dismissed. Russet went slowly and thoughtfully up the stairs. Grace sat over the fire, alone with her own misery.
"My dearest, I want you to try and be brave," Russet said. "Come close that I may whisper in your ear. We are going up north on a yachting cruise with Mr. Mostyn. He has proposed it himself, and I have accepted for both of us. There is something going on here that I must get to the bottom of. There will be danger."
"Do you mean personal danger for you and me?"
"Indeed I do. We are going to thrust ourselves into a hornet's nest; we are going to be close to the heart of a great mystery. And one of the chief villains of the plot knows that I have found him out. He wants to get us out of the way; he will murder us if necessary. All the same I am going under the circumstances, and knowing that my happiness is at stake I dare not stay away; but you—"
Grace rose to her feet, and her eyes flashed.
"I am coming," she said. "I could not stay alone with my trouble. I know that I can be brave and strong when the time comes. Russet, you can trust me."
Russet looked admiringly at her friend. There was a new strength about Grace that she had never seen before. It was good to know that she had an ally like this. Russet's thoughts went out to the blue waters of the North Sea, and the perils that lay before her.
"We are going to win," she said. "Love is going to show us the way."
A fine, fresh morning, with a brilliant blue sky, and the sea as deep a blue. The reeling deck of the Psyche gleamed white and trim. It was well to be a man like Mostyn and in the full enjoyment of such things. He sat there in a deck-chair, puffing at a huge cigar. He looked on perfectly good terms with himself and the world at large. The Psyche was only hired, it was true; but though she was a sailing yacht, she was wonderfully well found, and possessed everything, even to her own complete installation of electric light.
She was not paid for, of course, though her noble owner had chuckled to himself at Mostyn's offer. The latter could afford to be generous when there was a strong possibility of his never paying at all. He had taken the Psyche for a fortnight; he had the girls and Raymond Stennard aboard, but he was not so happy as he appeared to be.
In the first place, he had no business there at all. At this critical period of his affairs he ought to have been in the city. But the danger had come upon him suddenly, and it had to be grasped at once. One of these girls knew too much. Raymond knew too much also. At any rate for the present they must be got out of the way. At once Mostyn's fertile mind suggested the cruise.
He could kill two birds with one stone—put these dangerous witnesses out of the way, and keep an eye on Cyril Bath at the same time. He wanted to know, and he meant to know, what connection there was between Cathcart and Seth Powell, and why Renton was interested. Powell was playing him false, or he would have let his employer know that he had been discovered by Cathcart. And did Renton know that the Lone Star still existed?
These were the problems that Mostyn had to solve. With these problems in his mind he did not dare to leave the girl and Stennard behind. He might have opportunity of getting rid of them presently. The yacht was going to a dangerous part of the chart; there was a well-found lifeboat on board, as Mostyn had taken care to see. Visions of the yacht wrecked, and himself safely off in the lifeboat danced before his sombre eyes. That would be an easy way out of the difficulty—and easily managed, too, for Mostyn was as fine a sailor as Brown, the captain of the Psyche. If the worst came to the worst, that was just what Mostyn intended to do. To save himself, he would have committed wholesale murder without the smallest hesitation—indeed, the plan had already formed in his mind. And Mostyn had read for himself that Renton was drowned. Well, so much the better.
The wind was still freshening, though the brilliant sunshine remained. The captain of the Psyche glanced aloft from time to time somewhat anxiously. Russet tacked her way across the deck, looking very neat and trim in her blue yachting costume. Her eyes were sparkling, for she had forgotten her danger, and had given up everything to the keen delight of the voyage.
"Mr. Brown, you don't seem quite easy in your mind," she said.
"Well, I'm not, miss," Brown replied. "If this wind shifts a point or two we shall have dirty weather before night. I have known all the ways and moods of the North Sea since I was a boy, and if I had my way I'd put about for Hull."
"But the Psyche is a good boat, Mr. Brown," Russet said.
"Never a better, Miss. But she's built for speed, not to be pounded about by such seas as we get here. You'll excuse me, miss, but I must say a word to Mr. Mostyn."
Brown crossed the deck and addressed himself to Mr. Mostyn. If the latter did not mind, it would be much better to be closer in shore. Mostyn listened and laughed. Under ordinary circumstances, he would have permitted Brown to have his own way; but at present anything in the nature of a catastrophe would have been more welcome than otherwise. He shook his head resolutely.
"What are you afraid of?" he asked with a sneer.
Brown colored and bit his lip. He was not afraid of anything, but he had his duty to his employers. Mostyn dismissed him with a curt intimation to mind his own business. The yacht was heavily insured, and if she went to the bottom Lord Leitor would be none the worse off.
"Give me the open sea," Mostyn said. "I'm no fair-weather sailor. Go and look after your own duties, and don't bother me any further."
Brown touched his hat respectfully. The wind still freshened; the white decks of the Psyche were gleaming with water. It was free and glorious, Russet thought. Many an expedition of the kind she had had with Mostyn. The motion troubled her not at all.
"It's glorious!" she cried. "This air is like champagne. Still, I am bound to admit that it is a little moist. I must go down and get some oil-skins."
Grace was doing her best to read a book in the cabin. She was not quite so robust as Russet, though she was by no means a bad sailor. Raymond Stennard was nowhere to be seen.
"This is rather more than I care for," Grace said. "I wish we were close to land."
"So Mr. Brown says," Russet replied. "But Mr. Mostyn will have none of it. Well, he can't very well wreck us without sharing in the calamity himself."
Grace looked up swiftly with a startled expression on her face.
"Do you really think that the danger lies that way?" she asked.
"My dear, it is impossible to say what direction the danger lies in. That there is danger for us I have known from the first. It is for us to try and guard against it. Mr. Mostyn brought us here because he was afraid to leave us behind, and the same remark applies to Raymond Stennard. The scheme sounded philanthropic, but it is nothing of the kind."
"Raymond Stennard seems better," Grace said thoughtfully.
Russet was of the same opinion. The boy came into the cabin presently, and Grace slipped away to her stateroom. It was the first time that Russet had had the chance of a private talk with Stennard. Mostyn had discouraged their opportunities. At the present moment he imagined Stennard to be helplessly sick in his bunk. He looked wretchedly ill now, but the wild expression had gone from his eyes and the fierceness from his face. He colored as he caught sight of Russet, and would have withdrawn had she not called him back.
"Are you well enough to talk to me?" she asked, "or shall we wait for another opportunity?"
Stennard hesitated, and then sat down. His courage was coming back to him.
"Miss Ray," he said, "you have always been kind to me. And you want to be kind to me now. I have done a great wrong, and you know something about the story of that wrong."
"What makes you suggest that?" Russet asked.
"Your manner for one thing, and my confused recollection for another. I am sane enough now, but I have been mad for a day or two. It is beginning to come back to me that in my delusion I came to your house and forced my way into the drawing-room. And then I told you certain things. Was Mostyn present?"
"Mr. Mostyn was present—certainly." Russet said. "And you told us—everything."
"Then you know the story of my crime," Stennard said eagerly, "and, knowing that, you are still kind to me. Ah! what angels women are when foolish men need them! I was mad that night—mad with remorse and shame—and I told you the whole truth. I am a thief—"
"That can be expiated and—forgotten," Russet said gently. "Go on."
"Really, there is little more to say. Mr. Mostyn promised me that he would prove that he had nothing to do with the forged letter. That is why I am here; but for that I would not have come. It was very kind of Mr. Mostyn to bring me here."
Russet discreetly said nothing on that point.
"Time will tell," she murmured. "Mr. Stennard, are you as great a coward as you profess to be?"
"Morally, I am afraid so; physically, no. I am wonderfully strong, and fear no man in that way. If I could only find some means of proving it to you?"
Russet felt a little easier in her mind. The strong arm might be wanted before long, and, indeed, when she looked at him, Raymond Stennard's appearance was greatly in his favour. His glance was steady now.
"The opportunity may be nearer than you imagine," Russet said. "And now I am going to whisper a word in your ear. Do not place the smallest trust in Mr. Mostyn."
Russet spoke quietly, and Stennard nodded. As a matter of fact, he had no faith in Mostyn; he had known all the time that he was hoping against hope. He glanced curiously at Russet, but she said no more. Conversation was getting difficult owing to the increase in the gale. Every now and then a big wave would strike the Psyche, and she heeled over as if she would sink. Anything was better than staying there in the cabin. Russet donned her oil-skins and made her way to the deck.
The sun was shining still, but the sea had got up considerably. Most of the sails had been furled, so that the Psyche was scudding along under bare poles. Mostyn came over from the davits, where he had been critically examining the lifeboat.
"I believe we are in danger. Are we?" Russet asked him.
Mostyn hoped not, though perhaps it had been wiser to remain more in shore. But that was impossible now, as the tide was dead against the yacht, and the practical absence of sails made her more or less unanswerable to the wheel. Brown was steering, with a set, hard expression on his face.
"I'm afraid it's my fault, my dear," Mostyn said. "I would have my own way, despite Brown's advice. But there is nothing to be afraid of yet."
Russet looked thoughtfully into the face of her companion. There were small grounds for suspicion as yet for Mostyn could not be held accountable for the gale. The force of the wind increased all the afternoon; the decks were groaning as the light of day commenced to fade. Over the leaden seas the yacht plunged. There was nothing in sight save the smoke of a drifting steamer. The steamer came closer, and Brown grabbed for his glasses.
"Is there anything the matter with her?" Russet asked.
"Nothing at all, miss," Brown replied, with a smiling face for the first time. "It's a piece of pure luck. We can't go on, and we can't go back in the wind, and it's going to be a real dirty night. Yon boat's a tug."
"Whats that got to do with us?" Mostyn asked sharply.
"Everything, sir. She's a tug as I recognise—indeed, I know the boat. She's the Queen of the Mist, and she's probably looking out for a job like this. Bob, run up the signal."
The sailor, nothing loth, started to carry out his order. Mostyn angrily snatched the bundle of gaily-colored flags from his hands and pitched them upon the sopping deck.
"Nothing of the kind," he said sternly. "If you think you are going to get a big sum of money out of me by playing into the hands of the tug owner, you're mistaken. I'm too old a sailor to be taken in with that game. The Psyche can ride out the gale easily enough."
Brown set his teeth together. He was going to disobey orders, and take the consequences.
"We're in danger," he said. "A sailing-boat has no business here, and you know it, sir. If we don't take this opportunity, God knows where we may be in the morning. Stand aside sir."
Mostyn clenched his hands passionately. Everything had fallen out exactly as he had hoped—indeed, far better than he could have hoped. Presently, when the time came, he would cut the lifeboat free from the davits, and leave the Psyche to herself. If she drifted towards the Flat Sands nobody would live to tell the tale. And there was this fellow coming to spoil everything.
"Do you mean to disobey me?" he asked hoarsely.
"If you choose to put it that way, sir, yes," Brown said. "Bravery is one thing, and foolhardiness is another. Stand aside, sir, or there is going to be trouble."
The man meant every word that he said. Mostyn grabbed at the bundle of signals with the obvious intention of pitching them overboard; but before he had gone a yard Brown was upon him. The struggle was short and decisive. A minute later Mostyn lay on the deck with a cut over his right eye and a general sense of haziness upon him.
"Run up the signal, Bob!" Brown panted. "There's no time to be lost. Seems to me as if the tug were lying off waiting for us. Thank heaven, that is all right!"
Mostyn picked himself up, his eyes gleaming fitfully. It was well for Brown that they were not alone together in some quiet spot at that moment. Mostyn was beaten and angry. He had not expected to be borne down by the captain of a private yacht.
"You shall pay for this," he said between his teeth. "You disobey my orders, and you insult me grossly. Make the most of your time. If I have anything to do with it, your certificate will be so much waste paper."
Mostyn turned on his heel and went below. He dared not trust himself to speak any further. He took no heed of Grace and Stennard, who appeared to be reading. Despite the gale, Russet still stayed on deck, interested in the proceedings.
"You think that we were in real danger?" she asked.
"The gravest," Brown replied. "We were drifting west by north. After nightfall we should have been helpless. And as sure as fate daybreak would have found us on the Flat Sands."
Russet went below thoughtfully. She repeated what Brown had said, but Mostyn took no heed. He seemed to be brooding over something; gradually, the old cunning gleam came in to his eyes. He strolled away to his own room, where he proceeded to open a bottle of wine, taking good care not to break the cork. Then he dropped two or three spots of some opaque liquid into the ruby depths and carefully resealed the cork. He was smiling to himself over the task. There was a heavy trampling and a rattling of the decks, and all at once the yacht seemed to take on a steady motion.
"Fast!" Mostyn muttered. "Well, my fine fellows, we shall see yet. Come in."
"Come to report that we were fast, sir," Brown said, as if nothing had happened.
"I'm glad to hear it," Mostyn said cheerfully. "Brown, I beg your pardon. You were right, and I was a fool. Be good enough to shake hands with me, and let us forget the past."
Mostyn spoke brightly enough, but his murderous eyes were never raised to Brown's face.
The disappearance of Douglas Renton had been a severe blow to George Cathcart. As time went on and the dinghey did not return, George was forced to one conclusion—Renton was drowned. No small boat could have lived for long in such a sea.
"I'm not going to believe it," Brodie said, his honest face trying to look cheerful. "Mr. Renton's not one of them as gives in easily. We shall see him again, sir."
Bad as it was, there were other things to think of; even the pursuit of the Lone Star was abandoned for the moment. The sea was getting up every moment. The old tug fairly wallowed in the trough; her deck was impossible to anyone not thoroughly hardened to this kind of thing.
"We'll just drift up and down," Brodie grunted. "It's no use thinking about the Lone Star for the present. And those aboard of her will have their hands full, too."
They drifted throughout the day, battered and pounded by the heavy seas. It was weary work, and Cathcart, moodily smoking in the tiny cabin, longed for action. He felt the loss of Renton keenly. The man had been a firm friend to him; he was after Cathcart's own heart. And he had held the key to the mystery. True, George knew that the Lone Star still existed, and he knew now of the clever trick that had been played upon him by two cunning scoundrels. It was possible even yet to outwit them. The rascals had been a bit too cunning or they would have disposed of the Lone Star and its cargo before this. Their caution promised to be their undoing.
It was late in the afternoon before Cathcart went on deck again. The sea was still rising; the spray cut his face like whip-lashes. Brodie stood there, swaying to and fro, with a glass to his eyes. Every now and then a black speck dotted the sea a mile or two away, and then it vanished as if it had no existence at all.
"What do you make of it?" Cathcart asked excitedly, all his seaman's instincts aroused.
"A sailing yacht, and a beauty," Brodie roared in his companion's ear. "Under bare poles. What she's doing here Heaven only knows. Before morning she'll be on the Flat Sands. And yet she does not seem to be badly handled, either. I can't for the life of me make it out."
"Any idea whose boat it is?" Cathcart asked.
Brodie yelled an order or two, and the tug drew nearer to the tossing speck. A big wave seemed to throw her clear of the water for a moment, and the pilot gave a sigh of satisfaction.
"The Psyche," he said. "Belongs to Lord Somebody—forget his name for the moment. Skipper named Brown; good man, too. What is he up to here?"
Cathcart started. He knew pretty well every yacht that sailed the North Sea, and the Psyche was quite familiar to him. He knew also as frequently as not the noble owner of the yacht hired her to Mostyn. He needed no further information now.
"There's some new devil's work here," he said. "John, there are foes aboard that yacht. I don't know what he has come for or what has brought him here, but I am certain of the facts."
"Guess we shall be able to find out," Brodie roared cheerfully. "We must. But what can they be up to for the moment? As you say, they will be on the Flat Sands before daybreak. Look here! Look at what is going on!"
As the Psyche pitched clear of the sea again, the struggle on her decks between Mostyn and Brown was plain to the watchers. It was very short and decisive, and a minute later the signal for help went up. Brodie began to roar his orders afresh.
"Mostyn!" Cathcart muttered. "I knew that rascal was there. He must not see me. If you'll excuse me, I'll go and lie down in the cabin, John."
"I shall want as many hands as I can get, sir," Brodie suggested coolly enough.
"Then you'll have to want as far as I am concerned. One of those struggling figures was Mostyn. He's got some deep game afoot. For some reason or other he doesn't want the Psyche saved. Can't you see that he must be kept in ignorance of the fact that I am here?"
Brodie nodded. The matter was made quite clear to him now. As Cathcart discreetly disappeared, he began to shout his orders again. Presently the Queen of the Mist was laid alongside of the Psyche as near as it was prudent to get, and for the best part of an hour attempts were made to get the tow-rope aboard the yacht. It was perilous work altogether, and long before it was finished Brodie was sweating from head to foot, despite the raw atmosphere and the drenching sea.
The boats were so close together now that Cathcart, creeping cautiously up the ladder, could plainly see the deck of the Psyche. Mostyn stood there, watching the unsuccessful attempts to fix the tow-rope with secret amusement. Peering over the hatchway, Cathcart could see his enemy quite distinctly. He smiled grimly as he wondered what Mostyn would think if he knew that he was deliberately tying himself into danger, and what his feelings would be if he knew the destination of the Queen of the Mist.
There was a despairing cast of the rope that carried the cable—the twentieth attempt—but this time the wind fairly carried it across the deck of the Psyche, and strong hands grabbed for it. Brodie grunted in a satisfied way. He gave a new set of orders, and then the Queen of the Mist plunged forward in a jerky, panting kind of way that told of the strain upon her.
It was not time to ask for instructions or demand a destination. All that had to be done was to keep the yacht in the path of the tug and her head to the wind till the storm had passed. As the darkness fell at last Cathcart came on deck. All he could see now were the lights of the yacht to the stern of the tug. He wondered what was going on there. He would have given much for one hour aboard the Psyche to see. Engines groaned and creaked, but the noise was lost in the roar of the tempest. Then the wind lulled for a moment, leaving a strange, painful silence in its place. A syren hooted in the distance, followed by the plaintive wail of another, and John Brodie pricked up his ears.
"I fancied that we had the old ocean pretty much to ourselves," he growled. "Tom, you'd better burn a flare-light or two. It's just as well to be on the safe side a night like this."
The member of the crew thus addressed nodded. Presently a blue light flared out for a moment, making the tug the centre of a great glaring light, and flashing over the deck and hull of the Psyche. Cathcart glanced sharply along her decks. It was only for a moment that the blue flare lasted, but it picked out the figures of what looked to be a tragedy. One figure stood motionless by the wheel, whilst another, with a stealthy, crouching glide, came up behind. Cathcart saw a hand with some instrument raised, there was a quick motion, and the figure of the watchman by the wheel turned as the blue flare picked out the darkness.
It was all over; it had gone almost as soon as it had begun. The flare light went out with a hissing spit leaving a blacker and more intense darkness behind. Just for an instant it seemed to Cathcart that he must have dreamt the whole thing. But it had been too vivid for that, and from the gasp that came from Cathcart's side it was evident that Brodie had seen it also.
"A nice lot your old friends seem to be," the old man growled in a voice that shook with excitement. "A lucky thing we flung off that light just at the right moment."
"Lucky it was not too late to prevent murder from being done," said Cathcart.
"Well perhaps so, sir. Still, we may be able to tell a story when the time comes. As soon as the weather gives us a chance I'm going aboard the Psyche."
"I can't wait for that," Cathcart said. "I'm going now!"
Brodie started. He knew Cathcart's strength and determination; but even a physique like that could not compass an absolute impossibility. The thing was stark, staring madness.
"You couldn't do it," Brodie said sternly. "Nobody could live in this sea for half an hour. It isn't as if you had what the newspaper chaps call a means of communication between—"
"But the means of communication exist, my dear Brodie. I'm a bit of an acrobat—indeed, I have been a bit of most things in my time. I daresay I shall manage to reach the yacht by climbing along the tow-rope. Only, no fireworks when the performance is going on. This is not a show-piece."
Brodie regarded his companion with the deepest admiration. The thing was just possible. And once Cathcart had made up his mind to a thing nobody was likely to stop him. Just for a moment the tow-rope was pulled tight and hummed like a harp-string, the next instant it was trailing in the sea.
"It's all very well as far as it goes," Brodie went on; "but there are one or two things to consider. I suppose you've heard tell of tow-ropes parting in such a gale as this? And if this one parts—"
The old pilot paused significantly, and Cathcart shuddered. That possibility had not occurred to him, but when Brodie mentioned it the risk had to be taken into account. If that humming cable broke, then its human burden would be flung headlong into eternity.
Many bitter thoughts flashed through Cathcart's mind in that moment. He was going to take a great risk for what might be exceedingly small results. But, on the other hand, the Psyche might hold secrets of the deepest importance. Mostyn was on board, to begin with, and that Mostyn's errand had something to do with the Lone Star he felt certain. Cathcart's blood was up now, and how he was to return did not occur to him. He would make an effort for the key of freedom and the restoration of his good name.
"I'll take the risk of that," he said between his teeth. "I'm going, John, but I daresay you can manage not to keep too tight a strain on the cable till I'm well across."
Brodie muttered that he would do his best. Cathcart buttoned his oil-skins about his throat. It was a dangerous burden to carry, but if the cable parted it would matter little what he wore. The heavy clothing would only render the end more speedy and merciful.
He hesitated just for a moment as he looked down into the hissing whirlpools over the side of the tug. It was a sight to make the honest man shrink from such a task. But it was only for a moment, and then Cathcart was slowly making his way along the towrope. He could feel it quivering under his fingers: he could see the waves lift for him like angry wolves after their prey; the cold spray cut his face like lashes.
Still, he held on bravely enough, till suddenly the rope sagged, and he was dipped headlong under the salt water. He held his breath hard and tight until his head hummed, then the rope tightened again, and he was clear of the water. But all his confidence had come back to him now, and he slipped along like a monkey. He was more than half-way across—two-thirds—nine-tenths of the journey was accomplished. Then Cathcart paused for breath.
He had to be careful now. He had to guard against being swung against the deck of the Psyche. As far as he could see nobody was there at all. It seemed a strange, almost unaccountable thing, but there it was. There was not a soul on the deck of the Psyche.
Had Mostyn murdered the man who had stood by the wheel? And, if so, what could be his object in so doing? George Cathcart asked himself these questions as he dropped noiselessly on to the deck of the Psyche and looked carefully around him. He was spent with the force of his struggle, and glad of a rest.
He slipped behind the lifeboat as a head suddenly bobbed up the companion-ladder. By the dim light Cathcart could see that the newcomer was Mostyn. He advanced now with the easy air of a man who is quite sure of his game. He had a long instrument in his hand and a small bottle. Just for the minute Cathcart was puzzled to know what the scheme was.
But that became clear as Mostyn approached the end of the tow-rope. He opened his bottle and poured part of the contents upon the long steel thing in his hand. Then Cathcart knew what was being done. A strong impulse to throw Mostyn overboard possessed him.
"He's going to file the rope," he muttered, "and cast away the yacht. And how does he expect to escape, and what devil's game is he playing here?"
Mostyn smiled to himself as Brown turned away. The steady motion of the yacht and the humming thud of the tow-rope recalled to him what he had to do. After all, it was only a matter of pitting his cunning against the simple honesty of the captain. Mostyn had quite made up his mind what to do. He would cast off the tow-rope and leave the yacht to her fate. In the coldest-blooded way he had decided upon this course. Here were two, if not three, people who were likely to become deadly witnesses if investigations on Cathcart's part were pushed further. Renton, who seemed to have known a great deal more than he had been given credit for, was dead. Therefore, there was nobody but Cathcart to deal with. Once the Lone Star cargo was disposed of, the vessel might be sold or broken up altogether. After that, Cathcart's affair must remain a mystery.
The lifeboat was ready, and could be cast off at any time. As to the Psyche, once free from the tow-rope, she must drift on to the Flat Sands, and in a gale like this she could not last for an hour. Brown would be safely out of the way before long, and his subordinates Mostyn would know how to deal with. He was going to perpetrate a cold-blooded and deliberate crime, but the reflection did not trouble him in the least.
There was a queer, evil smile on his face as his glance followed Brown from the cabin. Everything was going comfortably, and there were no witnesses to the business at any rate. Then, as Mostyn's glance went round the cabin, he saw Raymond Stennard looking at him from his bunk with a peculiar glazed expression in his eyes. It was not fear exactly, or curiosity, but a singular mixture of the two. Mostyn crossed over, and shook the lad passionately.
"How long have you been here?" he asked hoarsely.
Stennard passed his hand across his face as if to brush away something.
"I don't know," he said. "The sickness came over me, and I crept in here. I fancy I must have been asleep. When Brown came in, he woke me."
Mostyn muttered something; he was easier in his mind. Clearly Stennard had seen nothing. And yet there was that strange expression in his eyes. But that might be the result of his recent illness. If he had really seen anything he could not have kept it from Mostyn's searching gaze.
"I'm sorry I came in here," Stennard mattered. "But I was so ill I didn't know what I was doing."
He staggered to his feet, and passed out of the cabin, closing the door behind him. He laughed in a weak, hysterical way, and his face whitened beyond the pallor of sickness. All the old doubts had come back to him with overwhelming force. As he stumbled into the state-room, Russet looked up and caught his ghastly expression.
"Something is the matter," she said with swift instinct. "Tell me what it is at once."
Stennard collapsed on to a sofa. He made a sign for the door to be closed.
"Mostyn," he whispered. "I tried hard to believe in him. I have forced myself to believe in him, but I cannot. That man is bad and vile through and through. We are in danger."
"I have known that from the first," Russet said calmly. "Perhaps, on the whole, we ought not to have come here. But I wanted to find out things for myself. What has he been doing now?"
"Well, he has made up with Brown. He did not want a tow, and they had a fight over it. Mr. Mostyn was beside himself with passion—he had been defied and assaulted by a sailor on board what was practically his own yacht. And he was going to ruin Brown. When Brown came down to the cabin Mr. Mostyn begged his pardon. Mr. Mostyn does not usually."
"Indeed he doesn't," Russet interrupted. "What took place then?"
"Well, Brown seemed to be pleased. And when he had gone, Mr. Mostyn looked murder after him. Oh, it was a fearful face—so fearful that I nearly cried out. But I managed to remain silent. I saw everything that was done with a powder, and a bottle of red wine of some kind."
Russet fairly gasped. So the plot was unfolding itself. She signified Stennard to proceed.
"It was a bottle of old wine," he went on—"I should say Burgundy by the smell of it. The cork was drawn out carefully, and something placed in the bottle. Then the cork was replaced and sealed again. Now, I should like to know what you make of that, Miss Russet?"
Russet made a deal more of it than she cared to say. For some reason or other Brown was to be rendered useless, though what Mostyn hoped to gain by this Russet failed to see. There was no very immediate danger seeing that Mostyn himself was on the yacht, and he was not likely to imperil the craft so long as his own precious skin was likely to suffer.
Still, the fact remains that he had strenuously objected to the calling in of the services of the Queen of the Mist despite the fact that the tug was practically the means of the Psyche's salvation. Russet racked her brains to find some way by which Mostyn could escape at the critical moment and leave the yacht to her fate.
"I can't make it out at all," she said. "But who could fathom the depths of a mind like that? One thing is certain. Mr. Brown must be told at once; he must be warned."
But that was easier said than done as Russet found to her cost. The storm was still raging, as she tried to make her way to the deck. One of the sailors stood at the head of the ladder, and courteously but firmly declined to allow Russet to come further.
"Mr. Mostyn's orders, miss. Really, it isn't safe."
It wasn't safe, as Russet was bound to admit. Evidently Mostyn was taking no risks, and Brown was too busy to be disturbed. With her little white teeth set together, and rage in her heart, Russet went below. She dared not push her point too far, for if she did, Mostyn would know at once that Stennard had really seen something. There was nothing for it now but to wait the development of events. Stennard listened almost languidly to all that Russet had to say.
"We must contrive it at dinner," she said thoughtfully. "Only you two must not look so dreadfully scared. Try to appear natural, and leave it all to me."
"If it were only something with physical force in it," Stennard groaned, "I might be of some use. As it is, I feel like a perfectly helpless wreck."
"It may come to that," Russet said. "Then we shall look to you for protection."
The minutes dragged on slowly, the steward came in and laid the dinner, placing the fiddles on the table. Mostyn looked into the cabin while it was deserted for a moment, and examined the glasses critically. He just touched the bottom of one with the point of his finger, and went out. The meal was ready presently. There was a rattle and a roar, and a suggestion of cold spray as Brown came down.
"You are going to dine with us," Mostyn cried. "And you have earned your dinner. Where will you sit? I had a place laid, you see. Let us hasten to eat whilst we have the chance."
The man spoke with boisterous gaiety. From under her long lashes Russet watched him. The other two were constrained and silent, but then every allowance could be made for them. Presently Mostyn produced a bottle of some red wine, the cork of which he proceeded to extract carefully.
"There!" he exclaimed, as he poured the deep red wine into a decanter. "That is what is called Comet Burgundy, wine of 1859. I have opened this bottle as a special treat. I am not going to give it to the girls, because such stuff is wasted on women and boys. Brown, help yourself."
Brown murmured his thanks. Russet placed a card stealthily on the table, and pushed it towards Grace. The latter seemed to understand what was meant, and pushed it on towards Stennard. All this time Mostyn was smiling in hearty fashion at the captain. He saw nothing of the card, which lay now under Brown's nose. As he was about to fill his glass, he looked down, and saw the pencilled legend—"Drink no red wine to-night." It was fortunate that his nerves were under proper control, for Mostyn was still eyeing him critically. He reached a little further, and took up the water-jug.
"Hold hard!" Mostyn cried. "You've got hold of the wrong bottle."
"Well, in a manner of speaking, I have, sir," Brown laughed. "As a matter of fact, I cannot touch red wine. It is absolute poison to me. I don't look like a gouty man, but you can never tell. Don't you trouble about me sir. I am better with water to-night."
Mostyn looked down for a moment, and Russet could see that he was crumbling his bread savagely. But it was only for an instant, and then he was his smiling self again.
"It's a sin to keep us out of all these good things," Russet said gaily. "Let me pass you the decanter, uncle. Only you must not drink it all."
With a hand that trembled slightly, Russet passed the crystal decanter. There was not a moment's hesitation on the part of Mostyn. He poured out a glass and tossed it off with infinite relish. Russet was so surprised that she could only sit there helpless for the time. Mostyn drank a second glass with the most natural manner in the world. As he rose from his seat, Russet glanced at Brown. The honest sailor seemed to be as astonished and bewildered as herself.
Brown reached out his hand eagerly enough. He had a weakness for champagne, and, after all, he had only been warned not to touch red wine. It would have been easy to doctor still wine, but nobody could interfere with a bottle of champagne. And yet Mostyn was drinking the very liquor that the captain had been mysteriously warned against.
Russet caught herself wondering if what Stennard had seen was not, after all, a mere figment of the imagination.
They left the dining-room presently, whilst the steward was clearing away, and Mostyn was tendering his cigar-case with a fine hospitality. Brown sat nodding in his chair.
"I feel most deadly sleepy," he said. "I can hardly keep my eyes open."
"Small wonder, after a hard day's work like yours," Mostyn said. "Never mind me. Try forty winks. I'll wake you up at the end of an hour. Never fear."
Brown sank back in his chair, and his head fell forward. A few minutes later he was dead asleep. Mostyn shook him vigorously, but without the slightest effect. His eyes were gleaming now.
"The stuff worked like a charm," he muttered. "Fancy just a smear on the bottom of the glass having an effect like that! It was just as well to abandon my first experiment, as that young fool, Stennard, might, after all, have seen something. And now to do the needful."
Mostyn closed the door, and locked it behind him. Up on deck one man only was keeping watch. As the yacht was on tow, there was no need for more; there was no need to expose the crew to unnecessary hardship. Brown's faithful henchman, Bob, stood looking forward with his eyes shaded. Mostyn crept up behind him, his arm raised with a fell, murderous intent. The arm was just falling when the flare-light from the tug filled the whole earth and heaven with a ghastly blue glare.
With a muttered exclamation Mostyn fell back. The watcher seemed to know by instinct that somebody was near him, and he turned. It was, perhaps, fortunate for Mostyn that the first darkness was so dense after the gleaming light that Bob could not see the look on his face.
"All well, sir," he replied to Mostyn's stammering question. "Nothing much to do but to wait till this 'ere storm goes down. So long as the cable doesn't part we're right enough. A drink, sir? Well, I shouldn't mind the suggestion of brandy, or something of that kind."
Here was the way out of the difficulty. Mostyn cursed himself hoarse, because he had not thought of it before. And he had been within an ace of committing something like murder. Another instant and the blow would have fallen, and, perhaps, been witnessed in that infernal glare from the deck of the tug. Mostyn was trembling from head to foot as he thought of it. He came back presently with a good stiff glass of the grateful spirit in his hand.
"Just take that into the chart-house and drink it off," he said cheerfully. "I'll take your place for the time. And don't you hurry. A little warm air will do you good."
Mostyn was alone on the deck at length. He staggered across to the davits, and saw for the twentieth time that the life-boat was all right. He had only to cut the supports away to float into the night and be picked up in due course with a plausible tale that would pass muster. But there was one thing to do first, and Mostyn would be ready to do that one thing presently.
He stood there, with the darkness and the storm raging round him, for a quarter of an hour, then he crossed the deck, and looked into the chart-house. Bob lay in his chair absolutely dead asleep. Mostyn had no occasion to test the strength of his drug—he had evidence of its success already.
"Now for it," he muttered. "The time has come. Once free from the tug in this storm and darkness, and the fate of the Psyche is sealed, and I am free. A big file and a little phial of oil, and the thing is done."
It was getting late now, but Russet had not gone to bed. She had baffled Mostyn in some way, but she was feeling far from satisfied. She wondered how much longer Mostyn and Brown were going to sit in the dining-room. She would go and disturb them. She tried the door, only to find it locked and the key gone.
"What did it mean?" Russet asked herself anxiously. She flew along the companion-way until she came to the steward's quarters. Had he the key of the dining-room?
"Well, no, I haven't," the steward said. "Mr. Mostyn said there were certain papers; but you see, I have double keys. Sometimes when his lordship hires the yacht, the keys are forgotten, and as I have always a duplicate set why, you see—"
"Give me the one of the dining-room at once," Russet demanded.
She was back again in an instant. There was Brown fast asleep in his chair. There was no sign of drink about him; he had gone off past all waking until the effects of the drug died away. Oh, for some strong hand, some manly help just now! Russet moaned. But help was coming in a way she little dreamt of.
Completely forgetful of the fact that he was soaking from head to foot Cathcart stood there watching Mostyn's movements with the deepest interest. There could be no doubt what was happening. Mostyn was deliberately cutting away the cable with the intention of parting company with the Queen of the Mist and thereby to a dead certainty casting the Psyche on the Flat Sands.
Nor could Mostyn have possibly been in ignorance of the fact of the peril; on the other hand he was deliberately courting it. His knowledge of the North Sea was fairly good; he had been yachting here for too many years not to know where trouble lay.
What was his object, then, seeing that his danger must be as great as anybody else's? To bring about this thing he had not stopped at violence, as Cathcart recollected as he thought of the flare-light from the Queen of the Mist, and what it disclosed. It was not possible that Mostyn had suddenly lost his reason and was bent on wholesale destruction of human life.
Cathcart pulled himself up suddenly. He saw it all in a flash. His first impulse was to dash forward and fell Mostyn to the deck. But he had no need to disclose his presence just yet. Mostyn was not a powerful man from a muscular point of view; he was not accustomed to this kind of work, and the thick cable would provide him with a good three hours' toil yet. Favored by the darkness and the storm, Cathcart crept all around the deck till he came to the life-boat. He would have given much for a light at that moment, but a light was out of the question.
He had to feel for all that he wanted to find out. He satisfied himself, and he smiled as he crept back to his original place. He would know how to act presently. The tempest lulled just for a moment and as the turmoil ceased the sweet, clear notes of a woman's voice struck on Cathcart's ears. He stood still, astonished and shocked.
Astonished that any woman should be on the yacht, and shocked to know that her presence was no detriment to Mostyn, in his diabolical task. Cathcart shut his teeth more tightly together, and with a resolution that there should be no mercy for Mostyn when the time came. If that woman—
Cathcart thrilled again. It had come upon him with a staggering force that the woman might be Russet; indeed, the more he thought of it, the more likely it seemed. Without further hesitation, Cathcart crept to the companion-ladder, pulled the tarpaulin aside, and descended into the body of the yacht. The voices were quite plain now—two women were talking in the dining-room—their voices hardly stronger than a whisper. Cathcart crept forward and looked in.
Russet surely enough, and Grace Ives. They were bending over the body of a man who seemed to be either dead or absolutely insensible to all that was taking place around him.
"We must wait till the effects of the drug have passed," Russet sighed. "Goodness knows in what cunning fashion that man managed to trick us. Oh, for a good, strong man to—"
Russet paused as she looked round. There stood Cathcart, dark and smiling, the drippings from his wet clothing soaking into the carpet. Russet would have screamed aloud, but Cathcart jumped across to her and laid a hand upon her lips.
"You must not betray yourself, darling," he said. "You seem to be in sore need here."
Russet was recovering herself. A wild gladness thrilled her from head to foot, there were tears of joy and thankfulness in her beautiful eyes. It seemed as if Heaven had heard her prayers and sent the one man she longed for to her assistance.
"Oh, my dearest!' she murmured.
"How glad I am to see you. Shall I wake up presently and find that it is all a dream? No; you are real enough—real, and so very wet. I must get you some dry clothing at once. If Mr. Mostyn chances to see you—"
"He is not likely to. He has a pretty occupation on deck likely to last him some time."
Russet slipped away. Now that she no longer depended upon herself, she was trembling violently from head to foot. A little time before she had been regretting her temerity on coming on this voyage; now she felt that George Cathcart's sudden appearance was an omen that the danger was merely a passing one. A little later, and Cathcart had changed into some dry clothing and was ready to hear Russet's story.
His face grew grave as he listened. These girls and Stennard knew too much; it had become more or less necessary to get them out of the way. Well, such things had been done before, and they would be done again. It was not the first time that a scoundrel had planned wholesale murder to hide his crimes.
"I never guessed that it was going to be as bad as this," Russet concluded. "I knew there would be danger, but I risked that to find out things. But Mr. Mostyn is not going to perish with us, George. What can be his cunning scheme to get away?"
"I have fathomed that," George said with a smile. "At the present moment he is taking a deal of violent exercise and running the risk of an attack of congestion of the lungs, and all to no purpose. I am going to clip his wings presently, my brave little girl. After I have said two words to him—though I don't intend him to know who says those words—there will be no further attempt to get away from the tug. Meanwhile, you can make yourself quite easy in your mind."
"And do you think Mr. Brown will be any the worse for—"
"For his drugging? No, except a violent headache. Mostyn will owe Stennard one for betraying him. And see how easily he rose to the occasion. We have not done with that man yet, but you can make your mind easy as to the Psyche. When the gale blows out in the morning she will not be on the Flat Sands. Russet, we are getting very near to the end."
Russet smiled lovingly into the speaker's face.
"I hope so, with all my heart," she whispered. "If you can only manage to convince people that you had nothing to do with the casting away of the Lone Star."
"My darling, I hope to prove that before the week is over. I could not have done that thing, for the simple reason that the Lone Star was not cast away at all."
"Do you mean to say that the vessel still exists?" Russet cried.
"Even so, dearest. It sounds impossible, but that is so. There were two Lone Stars, and I was drugged, like Brown here, and taken away on the wrong one. The wrong one was cast away, and people naturally thought it was the boat I was engaged to command. The real Lone Star, with a fine cargo, sailed away under another name. Renton knows all this, and he told me."
"Poor Douglas Renton, whom we shall never see again."
"I am not quite so sure about that. When we sighted the real Lone Star, the boat we had come on purpose to discover, Renton set out for her. It is possible that when his dinghey upset, he may have reached her decks. Bath is aboard the Lone Star, and so is Powell; hence, there is more danger, you see."
Russet nodded thoughtfully. She could see very plainly indeed. Here was the Lone Star, with the off-chance of her real owner being aboard, here was the Queen of the Mist in pursuit, and here was the Psyche. It was a strange tangle altogether, and one that it was impossible to see the end of.
"We must find the Lone Star," George said. "She is not far away, or Mostyn would not be here. And if I tell our friend Brown—who is still sleeping so peacefully here—something of the truth, I shall be able to rely upon his assistance, I think. Once let me have a handful of resolute fellows on the deck of the Lone Star, and my innocence is proved. The Lone Star crew are merely Lascars and a mean white man or two, and they are not at all likely to show fight."
"Meanwhile, can Mr. Mostyn do any further damage?"
"Not a bit. Let him amuse himself, and keep out of mischief. But I will give him a hint presently. On no account must we lose touch with the Queen of the Mist just now. My dear child, if you could find me something to eat, to say nothing of a little brandy after my swim!"
Russet darted away at once. There was no reason why the steward or anybody below should know that the yacht had a visitor, so Russet brought in the food herself. Grace had gone to her cabin, secure in the knowledge that there was nothing further to fear, and that she might sleep safely. Stennard was nowhere to be seen. And there was not the slightest danger of Mostyn's coming down.
"We are going to be comfortable and cosy for an hour," George said, when he had done ample justice to the food, quite a different quality to the meals on the tug. "So young Stennard told the truth about the pass-book. And as we guessed, it had passed from his hands to Mostyn."
"I am certain it was done with no evil motive," Russet said. "The boy got into Mr. Mostyn's hands, and he persuaded him that he was actually doing you a service by his action. When the trial came on, and that forged letter was produced, it was quite another thing. The trouble seemed to turn the poor boy's brain for a moment. He came to our house quite upset, and blurted out the truth before Mr. Mostyn. And he told him how he and you and Mr. Renton had found Seth Powell."
George's face grew grave as he listened.
"That was very unfortunate," he said. "Our great object was to keep Mostyn in the dark as far as possible. He had not the slightest idea that we knew—or, rather, Renton knew—that the real Lone Star was still afloat. At the same time, Stennard's delirious confession made you an important witness, seeing that you had learnt so much already. Therefore, you had all three of you to be got out of the way. You came here to your death."
The last words were spoken almost in a whisper. Russet's face blanched, and her lips trembled.
"I realise that now," she said. "But it never occurred to me that Mr. Mostyn would dare to go as far as he has done. The danger I apprehended was rather for yourself and Mr. Renton than for Grace and myself. And I was thinking of you particularly."
Cathcart bent over and kissed the trembling lips fervently.
"I might have known that, darling," he said. "Well, your pluck and perseverance are going to be rewarded. If I had not seen you to-night, I should have acted in another manner altogether. I should have more or less been in the dark. But now that you have told me so much I see my way quite clearly. Where should I have been now but for a love like yours?"
It was a little later before George crept up on the deck again. He could see the figure of Mostyn still bent over his task, and he smiled grimly to himself as he realised what it all meant and how vain it was. As Cathcart reached the lifeboat he took a long knife from his pocket and opened the shining blade. Then there was a rending and tearing of leather, the rush of escaping air, and Cathcart smiled to himself. The storm lulled for a brief space, and then the roar of the blast swept the deck again.
Cathcart was close behind Mostyn now. He jumped forward and landed full on his back. Taken utterly by surprise, and forced forward by the weight of a fine athlete body, his head came in contact with the deck with a force that confused his senses for the moment.
"You fool!" Cathcart cried. "You are wasting your time, like the murderous idiot that you are. Before you expend any more force, go and look at your life-boat."
Mostyn's head was banged on the deck again with a force that left him almost senseless. George darted away into the darkness again, and was out of sight before Mostyn could stagger to his feet. He was half-inclined to believe that something had fallen on him, but as sense and thought came back, so did the mysterious words that had been hissed into his ears.
Shaken and bruised from head to foot, he grasped for a lantern, which he lighted in the chart-house. Then he made his way eagerly to the life boat. One flash of the lantern showed the mischief that had been done. The air-cushions were all slashed and torn, a score of holes had been slit in the bottom. The life-boat had been rendered absolutely useless. A cold fear broke into moisture on Mostyn's face.
"Good heavens!" he groaned. "What am I going to do now?"
For perhaps the first time in his life, Lockwood Mostyn knew what fear was. The suddenness of the assault, the hissing in his ear—everything pointed to a more than usually powerful relentless enemy. And this man was unknown to Mostyn, so he imagined, even by name.
As far as he knew, there was nobody on deck besides his guests and the crew. As to Brown and his faithful henchman, Bob, they were both beyond the reach of mundane affairs at present, and Raymond Stennard was quite unfit for a surprise like that. For some little time Mostyn stared at the lifeboat—a lifeboat no longer—in a dull, dazed silence. The application of a powerful hand and a few slashes of a strong knife, and all carefully laid plans had gone to the winds.
What next to do Mostyn could not see for a moment. So long as the gale continued he was utterly powerless for good or evil. If the storm went down it might be possible to do something once the yacht was rid of the tug. But even here Mostyn did not feel safe. He had a powerful and secret enemy on board the Psyche, and before long Brown would come to himself, and guess at once the trick that had been played upon him. Mostyn had hoped that the Psyche would be at the bottom of the sea, and Brown with it, in the sleep that knows no awakening.
Could he keep Brown in his present situation any longer? It mattered nothing as to Bob. But if he could keep Brown under the influence of the drug for a few hours more, and the storm went down, much might be accomplished. Mostyn stared at the tow rope in a dull kind of way. He saw the shining strands where his file had been at work. All that was so much labor lost; he would have to try some other way.
He dragged himself wearily down the companion ladder, for he was far more exhausted than he had imagined. All was quiet there: evidently everybody had gone to bed. Certainly the full force of the storm was spent, the yacht was riding steadily to the motion of the sea. In the dining-room Brown still lay asleep. He made no motion as Mostyn unlocked the door. Only one small light made the gloomy shadows in the room. With a firm step and a set purpose Mostyn crossed over to a cupboard and produced a tiny bottle. Brown lay with his head well back, snoring heavily. It would be the easiest thing in the world to force a few drops between his teeth. Mostyn dreaded Brown's anger when he once came to himself again. He drew the cork from the bottle.
"It's risky," he muttered. "If I happen to give him a few drops too much—"
"He will die, and you will be his murderer. If you stop the heart's action you will hang for it."
The little bottle dropped from Mostyn's hand; the contents trickled harmlessly on the carpet. It was veritably a night of surprises for Mostyn. He seemed to have enemies and witnesses everywhere. He looked about him, but could see nobody for the moment in the gloom of the chamber. Then a white figure came out of the darkness and stood in the centre of the light.
Mostyn gave a gasp of something like relief as he recognised Russet. Her face was very pale—as pale as the wrap she wore—but her face was calm, her eyes courageous.
"You were going to drug that man again," she said.
"I don't understand you," Mostyn stammered. "If you mean to insinuate that—"
"I mean to insinuate nothing," Russet went on. "I mean to say that you are a heartless monster. We all know too much, and you are trying to get rid of us. That is why you refused the aid of the tug, and why, when Mr. Brown insisted, you doctored his champagne. He refused the Burgandy, but that you kept back because Raymond Stennard had seen you."
"You are mad," Mostyn cried. "If anything happens to the yacht we should all suffer."
"You would not have suffered. You had the lifeboat. You were going to file the tow-rope and drift the Psyche on to the Flat Sands. For that purpose you got Bob and Mr. Brown out of the way. But now that the lifeboat is useless you have to think of another scheme."
Mostyn smiled in a superior kind of way, but inwardly he was dreadfully anxious and uneasy. He would have given a great deal to know what information Russet really had. She had never spoken like this to him before; she was generally timid and retiring in his presence. She must have some strong force behind her to show her hand as freely as this.
"You may laugh," Russet went on, "but you don't look like an innocent man. And you cannot deny the evidence of that little bottle on the floor. You brought us here to murder us all. You would have succeeded but for the intervention of a higher power. And all your sins are coming out—your shameful treatment of George Cathcart, the conspiracy of the Lone Star."
"What do you know about the Lone Star?" Mostyn sneered.
"I know she is still afloat," Russet said, "and probably within half a day's sail of us at this moment. Oh, I know everything. That is why I am here, why I got the duplicate key of this room from the steward. I cannot take any risks where my friends are concerned."
A sudden spasm of rage gripped Mostyn. He advanced upon Russet with his arm uplifted. He would have struck her had she not started back and cried in dismay. Before Mostyn could do more the door flung open, and Raymond Stennard came in.
"You coward!" he gasped. "You pitiful coward! I saw you come in here, and when I heard your voice raised, I expected something of this kind. Go to your kennel, you hound."
Mostyn was too overcome for the moment to reply. That Stennard, above all people, should show a spirit was in itself staggering. He looked still wretchedly ill and worn, but there was no sign of that weakness that had hitherto been his besetting sin. He caught Mostyn by the shoulders now and shook him until the cabin seemed to spin before his eyes.
"You unutterable blackguard!" he cried. "I'd like to kill you."
"That's all very well," Mostyn cried as he shook off his youthful antagonist. "A pretty fellow you are to speak of me in this fashion, and you a petty thief who robbed the bank—"
"I admit it," Stennard cried. "I care little who knows it. I did rob the bank, and you persuaded me that you were my friend. You persuaded me to steal George Cathcart's pass-book, and lend it to you, which I did, like the fool that I was. Oh, I am going to speak, as you shall know to your cost. And when Cathcart is tried again there will be a further witness at the trial, and when the case is ended you will take Cathcart's place."
A cheap sneer was all that Mostyn had in reply. Really the whole world appeared to be turned upside down. Here was the last person in the world that he had expected to turn against him, standing there boldly, and evidently meaning every word that he said. Surely there must be some strong controlling force behind this boy and girl who had dared to defy him in this fashion. Mostyn wondered if the unseen assailant of the deck had anything to do with this startling change of front.
"When my opportunity comes," he said slowly. He had not the remotest idea what he was going to say. His sole idea was to gain time. "When my opportunity comes—"
"We'll wait for that," replied Stennard. "Meanwhile, you had better go to your cabin. You are not to be trusted here. Be off with you, or I shall put you out."
With a savage snarl Mostyn turned on his heel. He was almost beside himself with baffled rage and disappointment. And really he had nothing to say that would tell in his favor. Stennard pointed to Brown, who was now moving uneasily in his chair.
"That's why I got rid of Mostyn," he said. "It was a good thought of yours to stay here. Meanwhile, you had better go to your cabin, and see the door is locked. I'll call Cathcart from mine."
Russet went off quietly, and Stennard followed. A minute or two later he was back again in the cabin with Cathcart. Brown opened his eyes for an instant, and then closed them again. Cathcart grasped the captain by the waist and fairly lifted him on to his feet.
"Drugged, beyond the shadow of a doubt," he said. "I know the symptoms, because I've been through it all before at the hands of the same gang of scoundrels. Have you got the coffee ready?"
By way of reply, Stennard indicated a spirit lamp on the floor. Brown was dragged to and fro until something like a degree of reason came back to him, and he opened his eyes. With a groan he pressed his hands to his head.
"Heaven on earth! What has come to me?" he muttered. "A body like lead and a head like a ball of fire. And a throat! Was there ever such a throat since the world began?"
Stennard proffered the coffee, which Brown drank eagerly. He had a second cup—a third, before he seemed to recognise the fact that he was in the presence of a stranger.
"What has happened?" he asked. "The last thing I recollect was drinking champagne here—if, indeed, this is the dining-room of the Psyche, and I am not still in a dream. Oh, I recollect. I was to drink no red wine, Miss Russet told me not to. The champagne must have been drugged, too. Now, why did that infernal rascal, Mostyn, poison my champagne?"
"To get you out of the way, and wreck the Psyche," Cathcart explained pithily. "Perhaps I had better tell you who I am and how I got here, and the rest of it."
"Go on," Brown said. "Proceed, sir. My head still aches like blazes, but it's tolerably clear, thanks to the coffee. I shall be very glad of an explanation."
Cathcart told his story curtly and to the point. The honest captain listened in absolute silence. It was an interesting narrative, especially interesting to a sailor, who naturally knew all about the Lone Star and the trial of the man sitting there opposite him.
"Well, if that doesn't beat everything," he cried. "So the Lone Star is still afloat somewhere near, and her old owner is aboard, you fancy. We'll find him between us, and I shall take means to keep Mr. Mostyn from doing any further mischief."
"How are you going to manage that?" Stennard asked.
"Put the beggar in irons," Brown said promptly. "He may be the temporary owner of the yacht, but I'm the captain. And from the evidence before us it's pretty clear that Mostyn was going to put the Psyche on the Flat Sands and murder the lot of us. I'd be quite justified in putting him in irons. I'll do it in the morning."
Cathcart nodded approvingly. There was not much risk of getting into trouble over a high-handed course like that; and, besides, it was no time for ceremony. The wind was going down now quickly enough. In an hour it would be bright enough to see. Under existing circumstances nobody thought of going to bed. It was impossible to do so and leave Mostyn with a free hand. The man was found out; he was desperate; as like as not he might blow the Psyche, with the crew and passengers, to eternity.
"If you'll lend me a hand we can cast off the tow-rope," Cathcart said, "and signal the Queen of the Mist for a boat, so that I can report progress. Just for the present I have the strongest possible objection to Mostyn knowing that I am aboard the yacht; in fact, he must not know of it. But if you adopt the course you suggested a little time ago—"
"You can bet your bottom dollar on that, sir," Brown said between his teeth. "As soon as Mostyn is up I'm going to act. Let's get this bit of work done first."
The tow-rope was cut off at last and in response to Cathcart's signal a boat came off from the tug. With a grim face Brown passed down the companion ladder and entered Mostyn's cabin. He was just finishing dressing. His pale face flushed as he saw Brown's expression.
"We are going free now, I hear," he said. "I'm glad to hear it."
"Ay, but you ain't going free, you murderous scoundrel," Brown replied. "So you thought that if you drugged me you would cast the yacht away and escape in the lifeboat. I've got a case against you that will give you fourteen years if there's justice in the land."
Mostyn's eyed blazed. He pointed haughtily to the door.
"You're drunk," he said. "If you dare to come here again—"
He had no opportunity of finishing his speech. Brown had him by the throat, and forced him back on the bed.
"Silence, you hound, or I'll strangle you," he said hoarsely. "It's as much as I can do to keep the crew from thrashing you, and pitching your wretched carcase overboard. I'm going to put you in irons, do you hear? It's either irons or I let the hands have their way with you."
Mostyn collapsed entirely. Miserable tears of self-pity rose in his hardened eyes.
"You're never going as far as that," he sneered. "I'm innocent! I swear that I am innocent. If it's a matter of money—"
"It ain't a matter of money, and it ain't going to be," Brown said curtly. "There, Bob, bring those irons. Mr. Mostyn prefers to have his food here for the rest of the voyage. On with them."
The irons were old and obsolete, carried in the yacht more for show than anything else; certainly nobody would ever have dreamt of their being used in the Psyche. Without a word Bob clapsed them about Mostyn's ankles. That this whole action was illegal and outrageous Brown did not trouble about at all. He had a murderous scoundrel to deal with, and he was not going to neglect any precautions. It was an hour or so later that Cathcart clambered up on board the Psyche again. The yacht had every outward appearance of cheerfulness and pleasure. Certainly nobody would have dreamt of the tragedy that was being enacted there. Cathcart looked significantly at Brown.
"It's all right, sir," the latter said. "I did as I promised you. And that rascal, he sat on the bed and cried. He's a slippery dog and a cunning one, but he can't do any further mischief now. I suppose I had better put into Hull and tell the police my story."
"Presently," Cathcart replied, "but I want you to assist me first. Take those glasses and tell me what you make out of that boat away to the north."
Brown's face gleamed as he put down the glass.
"You don't mean to say as it's the Lone Star!" he cried. "What a piece of good luck. We can out-sail her in a breeze like this. Only give the word, sir, and I'll put her head about."
None but the trained eyes of a sailor could have made anything of the black speck in the drifting cloud of the smoke away to the north. It was still a long distance away, but if the present breeze continued the Psyche had the foot of her quarry.
"We can pick her up in two hours or so, given a steady breeze," Brown said. "Few ordinary steamers are as fast as the Psyche in a good wind. And yonder boat is no flyer."
"She isn't," Cathcart admitted. "About twelve knots at the outside. You can cut that record."
Brown prided himself that he could. There was nothing to do now but to cram on as much sail as the Psyche could safely carry, and steer for the drifting trail of smoke ahead. Russet came up on deck presently, her cheeks flushed and her eyes sparkling. There was nothing she loved better than a good yacht and a favorable breeze. She laid her hand on George's arm.
"Why have we changed our course?" she asked.
"Because yonder is the Lone Star," Cathcart said in a voice that he tried to keep steady. "I thought we had lost her, but all the luck seems to be on our side now. And I think that it is quite time."
Russet's pretty face fairly beamed. She pressed George's arm lovingly.
"I'm so glad—so glad I came," she whispered. "It is nice to know that I have been so useful."
"That is a mild word to use," George said. "By your pluck and courage you have gone a long way to save the situation. We could not have done without you. You dared so much for my sake."
"And would again, dear old boy. What are you going to do? If you can bring the Lone Star safely into port it will be a great triumph for you."
"I am going to take her by force, if necessary," Cathcart replied. "Bath is there, and I sincerely hope that Renton is there also, but the crew count for nothing. I have Brown and a dozen stalwart fellows here behind me, so that I don't much fear the consequences. Mostyn has made use of a great many people in his time, and now we are going to make use of him."
"He would be surprised if he knew that you were here," Russet smiled.
"I am rather looking forward to the meeting," Cathcart said. "With any luck to-morrow night ought to see us back in Hull again. Dearest, the sun is shining at last."
Russet smiled again. She was perfectly and gloriously happy in the knowledge that she had done well for the man she loved. More than once she had shrunk from the ordeal, but that was past now, and the arch-plotter in the great conspiracy was powerless for further evil. If only Douglas Renton was safe Russet felt that she had nothing to wish for. She would fetch Grace up on deck, she said; anything was better for the girl than moping in the cabin.
Grace would come up presently, she declared. As Russet passed the cabin where Mostyn was confined the door stood open, so that she had a full view of the prisoner. He was seated in his bunk smoking moodily. The rustle of Russet's dress attracted him, and he looked up.
"Come here," he whispered. "I want to speak to you."
He was looking very haggard and worn. Russet thought her gentle heart had even a meed of pity for him. He motioned that she might close the door. Russet did so. She had nothing to fear.
"I'm done," Mostyn said. "I'm at the end of my tether. I don't bear any malice against you, but why need you have taken all this trouble for a stranger like Cathcart?"
"He is no stranger," Russet said quietly. "I have known him for three years; and we have been engaged for a long time. We kept the engagement secret because George—What is the matter?"
For Mostyn had raged out furiously. He had not expected this. He struck his clenched hands passionately together, strong words burnt on his lips.
"If you speak like that again I shall go and not return," Russet said coldly. "I have told you what you must have learnt sooner or later. It is for my lover that I have been working all the time; for his sake I came here, knowing that I might be going to my death. And I should have gone to my death if fate had not been too strong for you. We knew too much, and we must be got out of the way. That is why you tried to run the Psyche on the Flat Sands."
Mostyn made no reply; all the fight seemed to have gone out of him. The hand that held the cigarette trembled as if the owner had been old and withered.
"All we want now is the Lone Star," Russet proceeded. "We know it is afloat close near, and we know what you mean to do with her. Again luck has fallen on our side. They have sighted the Lone Star from the deck, and we shall be up with her in two hours."
"Who is going to identify her?" Mostyn asked, with a flush of his old manner.
"That I decline to say. But she has been identified, and before long a crew from the yacht will be aboard her. After that your destination is certain. It will be useless to fight any further."
Mostyn hung down his head and groaned. Everybody seemed to have turned against him. Even Russet's voice was cold and stern. He looked at her pleadingly.
"Won't you help me for the sake of the past?" he implored. "I've been pretty good to you."
"Why have you?" Russet asked. "Tell me the truth for once. Who am I?"
"You are the daughter of a gentleman who had great good luck gold mining. Your mother died years before, and your father left me your guardian with one thousand pounds a year to look after you. I thought it worth the trouble, and there you are. And I have done you no harm; not one penny of your fortune has ever been lost by my means."
Mostyn ought to have added that Russet's other trustee had never given him the chance. He went on now in a low, rapid whisper, his inflamed, blood-shot eyes fastened on Russet's face.
"I have been a good friend to you," he said. "For the sake of old times I want you to help me when the time comes. I admit everything—the putting away of the bogus Lone Star, the constant drugging of Cathcart, the forgery of that letter—everything. But I should not have done it if it had not been for so much leaking out. We never meant to harm Cathcart when—"
"That is not true," Russet said coldly. "You deliberately calculated that Mr. Cathcart would be the scapegoat if questions were asked, and when they were asked you went out of the way to manipulate evidence to further blacken an honest man's character. If you want any forbearance at my hands, don't mention that subject. My blood fairly boils when I think of it."
Mostyn adroitly changed the drift of the conversation. He was getting an old man now, and his nerve was not what it had been. He wanted a chance to get away, and perhaps to lead a better life abroad.
"Can't you help me?" he whimpered. "Help me for the sake of old times. They trust you here; you can get hold of the keys, if you like to do so. And then at night, in the bustle and confusion when we are nearing Hull—Russet, will you do this thing for me?"
Russet hesitated. She ought to have been vindictive; she ought to have set her face sternly in favor of the law being carried out, but her heart was softening. Brown came in at that moment.
"We are picking up the Lone Star hand over hand," he said. "Here, what's your code of signals with your fellows yonder? What number do you use?"
"Find out for yourself," Mostyn said between his teeth. "You'll get nothing out of me."
He turned doggedly away, and Brown looked at Russet. She motioned towards the door. The captain slipped away with a feeling that he was leaving matters in capable hands.
"If I were disposed to help you," said Russet, "you are going the way to prevent it. What is the number of the signal you used when calling to Sir Cyril?"
"You're a cunning one," Mostyn growled, not without admiration. "It's number 16 and 27. There!"
Russet called out the numbers to Brown, who rapidly hurried on deck again. She could read what Mostyn was about to say by the expression of his eyes.
"No," she said: "I am not going to make any conditions with you at all. Perhaps when the time comes I may be disposed to give you another chance, but you are to give us all the assistance you can. Whatever Mr. Brown asks you are to do without demur."
Mostyn groaned helplessly; he felt so weak and powerless. And to think that he should depend absolutely on the will and caprices of a mere woman! Meanwhile, Russet had climbed to the deck again, only too glad to be rid of Mostyn's hateful presence. A mile or so away lay the Lone Star, which, very slowly indeed, responded to Brown's signals. Cathcart was looking through his glasses.
"I can see Bath and Jordan," he said. "They are evidently suspicious of something."
"Yes, and they will be even more suspicious if they identify you," Russet cried. "You must go below."
Cathcart had not thought of that. He had forgotten everything in the excitement of the moment. Brown turned to his faithful henchman, Bob, who stood grinning by his side.
"We must put salt on the tails of those fellows," he said. "Take the keys and remove Mostyn's irons, and bring him up on deck. Ask the young ladies to come also."
Mostyn submitted to his freedom without emotion or comment of any kind. His only hope now was in Russet, and in doing exactly what she required of him. He could see Bath now waving his hand.
"Ask if they have seen anything of Mr. Renton," Brown directed.
Mostyn roared out the question, and Bath was seen to shake his head. At the same moment, from one of the port-holes below the deck, appeared the white face of Seth Powell, with a red running wound on his face. He waved his hands like one in distress.
"The breeze is too strong," said Mostyn. "I don't fancy they can hear."
He would have said more, only Brown hustled him down below again.
Then the signal went up that Mostyn wanted Bath, and would send off a boat for him at once. Almost before Mostyn could realise the fact, he was back in his cabin, and his big irons restored again. It was hateful to be made use of instead of employing other people as his own puppets, but it had to be endured. Russet would do the best she could for him later on, and there was a kind of consolation in the thought.
"I'm afraid it is all over with poor Mr. Renton," Brown said to George, who was hiding in the chart-house.
"I'm not so sure of that," Cathcart replied. "There's foul work going on aboard the Lone Star, or that fellow, Seth Powell, wouldn't have given us that pretty vision of himself through the port-hole. Why don't they respond to our signal? Ah! still suspicious. Bath wants Mostyn to go there."
Brown intimated that he had half expected something of the kind. But he was not quite at the end of his resources yet. Once more he went down and interviewed Mostyn. He produced paper and ink, and requested that Mostyn would write at his dictation.
"Your man is a little nervous," he said. "We want him to come and see you, but on the whole he prefers that you should go aboard the Lone Star. As a matter of fact, that does not suit our book at all. So you're just going to sit down and write the kind of letter that will induce the other fellow to come here. And when he does come there will be a pretty surprise for him."
"What do you want me to say?" Mostyn asked sullenly. He was aware of the fact that Russet had slipped into the cabin again. "Go on."
"Go on yourself. Say you're got something the matter with your feet which is perfectly true. Say that there is no time to be lost—something vaguely alarming."
With a bitter inward curse Mostyn complied. He seemed to be taking more pains than he usually took over such matters. Finally he pitched the sheet aside with a gesture of disgust.
"I shall have to write it all over again," he said. "My hand shakes, and I have smeared it badly. I suppose you are not in all that blazing hurry?"
Brown shrugged his shoulders impatiently. It was no time for niceties of that kind. He reached over and blotted the letter on the pad, and thrust it into an envelope.
"It's no invitation to a young lady's tea-party," he said. "What on earth does it matter so long as Bath can read it. Just you scrawl the address on the cover and I'll see to the rest."
Mostyn made no further protest. There was a queer sort of smile on his face as he bent over to complete the task that Brown had set him.
The smile deepened as the latter left the cabin. The boat had already been lowered and Cathcart was scrambling down into it to Brown's surprise.
"It's all right," George said. "With this cap and blouse I have put on I shall not be recognised. I am going to see what is taking place yonder; I mean to get on deck. If I am spotted it won't so much matter; but I shall contrive to keep out of the way."
Brown raised no further objection, and the boat pushed off. As they neared the Lone Star the white face and blood-stained head of Powell looked out of the port-hole again. It was a face of abject terror in a round frame, grotesque, but suggestive of all kinds of grave tragedian. Cathcart gave a signal to the coxswain to pull round so as to gain speech of Powell first. They were close under the ship's counter now, and from the Lone Star came a loud humming like a hive of angry bees. "What is going on?" Cathcart muttered to himself. "Hullo there, what's the matter?"
"The crew have gone mad," Powell whispered; "and they have turned upon poor Mr. Renton. I daresay it is all the doing of that smooth-faced devil on deck. I only got away by a miracle. But if Mr. Renton isn't done for, why it's two miracles here on the same day."
"I'm coming on deck," Cathcart said grimly. "Wait a few seconds till you hear Bath speak, then go to the door of your cabin and yell for him. Direct his attention for the moment anywhere or anyhow."
Powell nodded. In the presence of relief he was getting back a little of his lost manhood. The boat pulled on, and came to the starboard side. The grim, clean-shaven face of Bath looked down. It would have been hard for any of his judicial friends to have recognised him at that moment. He seemed to be cool enough, but all the time the angry hum on board the Lone Star went on.
"What do you want?" Bath asked. "I simply can't do what Mr. Mostyn requires. Has he written me a letter? If so, pitch it up on deck and I'll answer it. But keep clear for your lives."
The letter, weighted with a copper or two, was pitched on deck, and Bath tore it open. He smiled ever so slightly as he did so, for on the face of the letter was the secret sign of danger. He and Mostyn had not been working together all these years without providing for most emergencies. Those smears and blots told Bath as much as open print tells most people.
"Mostyn's trapped, or this is some plant," he muttered. "Here, you in the boat, I can't come. I regret to say that we have two cases of small-pox on board. The Lascars have found it out and they are mad for the time being. You had better give us a wide berth."
Cathcart, listening with all his ears, was half-inclined to believe the statement for a moment; but he had cunning brains to deal with, and Mostyn might have managed to convey some warning to Bath. Still, on the other hand, the statement was calm and deliberate enough, and there was that deep humming noise to confirm it.
"Wait a moment," Cathcart muttered. "Parley till you hear our white-faced ally yell. Then pull me up to the ladder, because I am going aboard to stay."
There was another question or two, and then a yell from the body of the ship. As Bath disappeared the boat was fairly lifted to the ladder, and an instant later Cathcart was on deck. He could see the broad back of Jordan as he stood by the wheel, but as for the rest the deck was empty. George plunged down the companion-ladder and stood in the darkness at the foot. He would be safe till he could feel his way further. He could hear the frightened tones of Powell's voice.
"I ain't more of a coward than anybody else," the latter was saying. "But my nerves isn't made to stand this kind of business. I—I could have sworn that I saw one of those black devils creep into the cabin. Well, I won't yell out again unless I'm quite certain."
With a contemptuous remark Bath turned on his heel and left the cabin. He passed so close to Cathcart that the latter could easily have touched him, and made his way to the deck. George darted into the cabin and locked the door behind him. He felt comparatively safe now; no suspicion would be aroused by the fact that Powell had taken the precaution to lock himself in.
"Now, what's all this about?" George demanded. "And how much of this is true?"
"Oh, what a fright you gave me," Powell gasped. "Talk about nerves! Why, mine are no better than bits of blotting paper. But I'm glad to see you, sir; goodness knows I'm speaking from the bottom of my heart when I say I am glad to see you."
Powell rambled on for a bit, his teeth chattering, his eyes blazing, and a dead-white face. The man's wits were half gone with terror and the fear of his surroundings. He talked himself a little calmer presently.
"Now, perhaps, you will be so good as to tell me what it is all about?" George asked.
"Well, I'll do my best, sir; but it all seems like an evil dream. Twice Bath has tried to kill Mr. Renton, and twice he has nearly succeeded. That second time was when you were within hail almost. But it didn't come off, so Bath and Jordan between them had another game. Two of the Lascars were suffering from some skin outbreak, in consequence of so much salt food and too little work. When Bath saw them he had an idea. He tells them they've got small-pox, and that Mr. Renton, who came over the side in the most mysterious way, as you know, brought that disease on board."
"But perhaps they have really got small-pox."
"Not a bit of it, sir. I've had it myself and know all the symptoms. It was a diabolical idea of getting rid of Mr. Renton, and putting the blame on other people."
"But it is only your idea that Sir Cyril worked out this thing?"
"It is more than an idea, sir. I don't understand the lingo of the Lascars, but I've gathered so much. And if I were wrong, why did those fellows attack Mr. Renton and myself and leave Bath and Jordan alone? If you can answer me that, why I haven't another word to say. The beggars think we are both done for, and are holding a kind of religious palaver in the forecastle. You can hear them now."
Powell spoke truly; indeed, it was almost impossible to hear anything else. The roar of voices hummed through the ship like machinery out of gear. Powell shivered as he listened.
"If you could only understand the lingo and give them a hint," he said, with his teeth chattering. "If you, sir, by any chance happen to speak a few words of that infernal jargon they call language."
"I know it perfectly well," George said. "As soon as it is dusk and safe for me to creep across the deck. I'll go down into the forecastle. Now, where is Mr. Renton?"
Renton was in the next cabin lying in his bunk with his head bandaged and his face corrugated with congealed blood. He had been terribly battered about, but no bones were broken, and a naturally strong constitution was already battling vigorously with the trouble. His eyes gleamed as he caught sight of George.
"You stand outside and give the alarm if anybody comes," the latter said crisply to Powell. "Well, old chap, you seem to have had some adventures lately."
"Quite up to Adelphi form," Renton said with ghastly cheerfulness. "He's tried to do for me twice, and the last game was to set the Lascars on me because I had brought small-pox on board. Ten minutes ago it was only the intervention of an angel of heaven that could have saved me, but the sight of your face has brought back all the courage to my heart. How did you get here?"
George proceeded to explain. Renton smiled painfully; it was good to know that assistance was so near at hand.
"I'll stay till it's dark," George said. "Then I'll swim back to the Psyche, and bring a boat-load of good chaps back with me. It's only a matter of time."
"Yes, and it's only a matter of time before those infernal Lascars are back here to make sure that they have properly finished their work. Still, so long as you are here—"
"I'll stay for the reception," said George grimly. "You've got some revolvers, I suppose? Is the case under your bunk? Good! I never saw a Lascar yet, or a whole crew of them for the matter of that, willing to face a white man with a revolver who meant business. Besides, as soon as it gets dark, I'm going to interview those Lascars in their own lair. I know their language well, which fact gives me a big pull over them. And now I am going to find you something to eat and drink."
In blissful ignorance of the new force he had to deal with, Bath went slowly and thoughtfully on deck. Jordan was standing with his shoulders square to the wheel. Still and calm almost, for the sea was running steadily down, the Psyche lay a mile or so away.
"Get one of the officers to hold the tiller a bit," Bath said. "I want to talk to you."
Jordan followed over to the taffrail where he and Bath talked under their breath.
"I should like to know what all this means," the pilot growled. "I thought we were going to put this business through quietly, and not have a fleet of yachts watching us. If Mr. Mostyn were anxious to join the expedition, why didn't he come in a proper way?"
"That I don't know, but can only surmise," Bath said. His face was grey with anxiety. "He sent me a letter demanding to see me aboard the Psyche, but there was the danger signal upon it, a sure sign that I was not to do anything of the kind. Fortunately, I had an excuse handy, and, what's more, an excuse that will keep those people yonder from satisfying their curiosity. They are sure to believe my statement because there could be no possible collusion in that part between Mr. Mostyn and myself."
"Then what does it all mean?" Jordan demanded again.
"I can't say. Something has come out. Don't you see Mostyn was more or less forced to write that letter. It was a trap for me. It's long odds that there are police aboard the Psyche. The whole thing must have been devised after we left Hull. We have upset their arrangements for the time being, and they are going to dog us and play a waiting game. We must give them the slip in the dark."
Jordan nodded. He was on easy and familiar ground once more.
"That's it," he said eagerly. "Wait till it's as black as your hat, and then full steam ahead with not so much as a light to show the way. It's a risky business, but I've done it before and shall do it again when I find that it's worth my while to take the job on. That was a neat touch of yours about the small-pox, and looks likely to save the trouble of getting rid of Mr. Renton."
A murderous gleam came into Bath's eyes. He was fighting now for his name and reputation; he had been playing his cards recklessly, and though the danger was very great, courage and resolution might save the situation yet. Once the valuable cargo aboard the Lone Star was disposed of, and the vessel put away, James Stevens would disappear, and Bath would take good care that he was never seen again. And Renton—the one man whose evidence was material—was dying, if he were not dead already in his cabin. Once he was out of the way all might be well. Bath was reckoning in ignorance of the many events that had taken place since he had left Hull.
Meanwhile the Psyche's boat had got back with the startling news that Bath had to tell. Mostyn was smoking moodily in his bunk, but waiting with some anxiety all the same. Bath would read danger in that letter, but at the same time it might not prevent him coming aboard the yacht. As Russet passed the door of the cabin Mostyn called her in.
"I hope all is well yonder," he said, with anxiety. "If anything has happened—"
"Well, it has," Brown's voice broke in. "They've got two cases of smallpox aboard."
Mostyn started, and something like a chuckle broke from him. It was some time since Russet had seen such a smile on his face before.
"Well, of all the smart tricks," he cried. "I mean—I mean, fancy that! I hope it was a message that told the news, and not a letter in reply to mine."
"It was a message right enough," Brown said sulkily, as he proceeded on deck, followed by Russet. "Really, miss, did you ever hear of anything more unfortunate?"
"I never heard a quicker or more ingenious lie," Russet said calmly. "Mr. Brown, Sir Cyril got a warning in some way, and that warning was in the body of the letter."
"Trust a woman's instinct for finding the way," Brown said admiringly. "But, begging your pardon, miss, I fancy you are wrong this time. I saw that letter written myself. It was very plain and quite straightforward."
"Not dashed off in Mr. Mostyn's usual hurried way, then?"
"Oh, dear no, miss. He was very careful over it. And when it was finished and got smudged in consequence of the gentleman's hand shaking, he was anxious to write it over again."
"Then I am right," Russet said eagerly. "That was to put you off your guard. Mr. Mostyn is a man who thinks quickly, and always makes up his mind on the spur of the moment. Before now I have seen him dash off fifty letters in an hour, and many of them important ones. There was a signal in that letter; even that smear meant something. You may depend upon it, there are no cases of small-pox on the Lone Star. Of course, if there were, it would never do to take the risk; but on the other hand—"
"Then what about all that stir among the Lascars, miss?"
"No doubt they have been frightened into the belief that the disease is really aboard. Now, are you prepared to wait till dark, and then pay a surprise visit to the Lone Star? Dare you attempt it?"
Brown thought the matter over for a moment. It was no nice position for a subordinate.
"Very well, miss," he said at length. "I'll do it and chance the consequences."
Darkness fell, with a hazy mist that presently began to dissolve like a curtain. As Russet came up on deck she looked in the direction of the Lone Star. She gave a little gasp of surprise and rubbed her astonished eyes. She looked again, but the stars were brilliantly clear overhead.
The Lone Star had vanished like a dream, leaving not a vestige behind!
There was just a chance for Bath yet. Renton was as good as done for, the plot hastily hatched with the unconscious Lascars as allies had fulfilled its work. Even still Bath was not quite sure whether Renton had recognised his own boat or not, but it was well to be on the safe side! No further move had been made by those aboard the Psyche, though the yacht still stood by apparently waiting on events. So the short winter's day wore on until darkness came without any further outbreak on the part of the Lascars. They were still in the same excited, restless state, and the angry hum was still going on, breaking out over and over again in a way that was trying to Cathcart's nerves.
He was longing with all his heart for darkness. It came at length, and then Cathcart prepared for his perilous task.
"I'm going now," he said, as he pitched away the end of his cigar. "If we can only scotch that danger and have no fear for the rest. Do you feel comfortable, Renton?"
Renton nodded wearily. What he wanted now was fresh air and careful nursing. Powell was doing what he could, but that was little from a man who was in a pitiable state of terror. He groaned as Cathcart went up the ladder, and the noisy hum came from the forecastle again.
On deck it was pitch dark; there was not the glimmer of a light anywhere. So that was the game they were going to play, Cathcart thought. It was a perilous thing to be afloat on the North Sea without a light, but it was the last resource of those scoundrels who held the Lone Star. They were going to slip away in the darkness, and trust to steam as a way of escape.
Well, it suited Cathcart for a moment. It enabled him to creep across the deck and reach the hatchway leading down to the forecastle in safety. In the gloom he could just make out the big form of Jordan and another figure by his side, which he rightly judged to be Bath. The Lone Star was quivering now all ready for the engines to full steam ahead.
The forecastle reeked like a shambles. Cathcart staggered back from the closeness and heat of it. Evidently these simple creatures in their ignorance imagined that warmth was the sovereign remedy for the foul disease which they imagined had come upon them. They had worked themselves up to a pitch of frenzy almost bordering on madness, and they were in a condition now to commit any enormity. A big man in a pilot jacket and duck trousers, evidently the ringleader, was vigorously haranguing the rest. There were no signs of firearms to be seen, but they were all provided with knives.
The big man paused as Cathcart entered. They were amazed to see a white man and a stranger there. It was a stranger who had been the cause of all the mischief, and in that moment Cathcart knew that he carried his life in his hands. A feather would have turned the scale either way. They were only waiting a sign from their leader. George pushed his way forward and signified to the leader to sit down.
"Stop that noise," he said sternly.
"So this is all your doing, you dissolute ruffian."
A vigorous blow, straight from the shoulder, and the big Lascar collapsed on the floor. Cathcart affected to take it all as a matter of course.
"Where are the patients?" he asked. "Produce them. Don't you know a doctor when you see one?"
The effect of the words were instantaneous. All signs of anger departed, sullen faces smiled, all gathered round Cathcart as if salvation depended up on him. Even the big man struggled along the floor and embraced him about the knees. The field was won.
"Here they are, master," a chorus of voices replied. "Lying in the corner, sick to death, going to die. Save them, and save all of us."
The same cry rose from all sides. The sick men whining and shivering and terror-stricken rose at Cathcart's command. They were in the way of frightening themselves to death. They were in the throes of a dread disease, and they were waiting with what resignation they could for the end.
"Just as I thought," Cathcart muttered. "You haven't got smallpox at all. Listen to me, for I speak truly and know what I say. You have not got smallpox either of you. See, I touch your bodies, then I touch my own flesh. Would I do that if you had the disease of the marks? You take some of this, and to-morrow you will both of you be as well as I am at the present moment."
Cathcart had not come unprovided with means to impress the minds of the simple Lascars. It was only a little citrate of magnesia in water, but it might have been the water of life by the reverend way in which it was regarded. The two patients swallowed down the sparkling stuff greedily.
"To-morrow you will be quite well," Cathcart went on. "Only you are to stop here for the present because the fresh air is not good for the complaint, and I want to come presently and see if there are any others. But you have not got the disease with the marks. You understand me?"
They crowded round the speaker with every demonstration of gratitude. The great doctor had saved the lives of them all. Of that there could not be the slightest doubt. Cathcart brushed them aside.
"Don't come near me, you dogs," he cried. "You have nearly murdered a friend of mine. Why did you go in the cabin and try to murder the man who was saved from the sea?"
They hung their heads in shamed silence, each waiting for the other to speak. Presently the big Lascar was hustled forward by his companions. He was terribly afraid of Cathcart; he did not dare to look up. Then he broke out suddenly in a torrent of speech.
"It was the master with the smooth face," he said. "We said there was trouble here, and he came and spoke that it was smallpox. And he said more, that the stranger who was saved from the sea had brought it. Perhaps if we killed him the disease would go away. It was so simple."
Cathcart smiled grimly. It was very simple indeed. Bath's scheme was so ingenious that it deserved to succeed. How Renton, under the circumstances, had escaped with his life was a miracle. But there was going to be a fine retribution for this later on.
"And the whole pack of you would have been hanged," Cathcart cried sternly. "Better have smallpox with a chance of recovery than being hanged to a certainty. Don't you move till you see me again."
He turned contemptuously on his heel and made for the deck. The fresh salt-laden air was sweet to his nostrils after the vile, poisoned atmosphere below. Just for a moment George stood on deck enjoying it. He crouched down suddenly as a figure loomed out of the darkness. It was Bath, who had evidently come up from the cabin. The latter crossed the deck to Jordan, who still stood at the wheel. The Lone Star was moving quickly now; she was getting away from the Psyche with as little demonstration as possible.
"You'll want the crew presently, won't you?" (In the stillness George could hear distinctly.) "We shall never be able to get far without the Lascars."
"Let 'em alone a bit longer," Jordan growled. "When they find it's all right they will come round again. It was a mistake to tell them all that pack of lies."
"And all to no effect so far," Bath replied. "I've been looking at Renton. He's lying in his bunk to all appearances as good as dead. A slight pressure over the heart, a hand to his lips would—"
The words were scarcely louder than a whisper, but George heard them. Just for a moment he forgot that he was only one man to two, and prudence very nearly went to the winds. But he recollected himself in time. Bath had worked himself up into a murderous mood and Jordan was utterly unscrupulous. There was a better vengeance awaiting George if he had only the patience to hold his hand.
"None of that," Jordan muttered. "It's out of my line altogether. I'm only a sailor—"
"But you don't mind benefiting if other people do the work," Bath sneered. "If I make it worth your while wouldn't you go down to the cabin and—You understand what I mean?"
"I understand what you mean perfectly well. If you like to put your hand to the rope, I ain't going to stop you, and my mouth's closed afterwards. But it's out of my line. I wouldn't mind killing a man in fair fight; but that way! Not so long as I can get my living honestly."
"Honestly! A pretty fellow you are to talk about honesty!" Bath replied angrily. "There's a thousand pounds—"
"Chuck it, or I'll throw you over board," Jordan went on. "I wouldn't do it for a million, and once I find myself well out of this you don't catch me on a job of this kind again. Drop it, or I'll down yer."
Bath stood irresolutely by the side of the big pilot. The whole thing mattered nothing to Jordan. He was being well paid for a risky job, and, if the worst came to the worst, he could prove that he was no leading actor in the drama. And Bath had hoped to find in him the tool for the vile deed that he dared not undertake himself. If Renton were only out of the way all might be well.
With rage and anger burning in his heart George crept across the deck. He reached the cabin in safety, and carefully locked the door behind him. Powell's sweat-bedabbled face lightened up as he looked up. He was trembling from head to foot; his lips quivered like one in the first stage of paralysis.
"Straight, I'm real glad to see you back again, sir," he whined. "When those beggars stopped making that noise I began to have hopes, but when you were away so long I lost heart again. I couldn't help fancying that they had murdered you, too. Is there any danger, sir?"
"You need not be afraid," George said contemptuously. "I've silenced the Lascars. They are convinced now that there is no smallpox aboard, and I've given them some medicine. If I wanted to use those fellows now they would do anything I asked them. But I prefer to carry matters out my way. If I want your assistance a little later, are you man enough to do what I ask?"
Powell thought that he was. He was prepared to do anything to find himself on shore again and well away from the Lone Star. George smiled at the expression on the little man's face.
"It's only a matter of a short time now," he said. "If you show any kind of grit you will be on the quay at Hull this time to-morrow night. How is Mr. Renton?"
Mr. Renton was really bad. He lay in a comatose state with his eyes closed. George lifted him up gently, but he seemed to be absolutely unconscious of his surroundings.
"Now, just lend a hand here," Cathcart commanded. "If Bath comes back the door is locked, and if he asks why you can say you are in bodily fear of the Lascars. Lift Mr. Renton up and put him in your bunk. Don't ask any questions. I have a very good reason for what I am doing. There!"
Renton was changed from one bunk to the other without the slightest knowledge of the proceedings, and his face was covered up so that his presence could not be detected. Then to Powell's utter astonishment, George proceeded to get into the bunk recently occupied by the sick man.
"What does it all mean?" Powell gasped, open-mouthed. "If this is some game you've got on, why—"
"It's what is called a dramatic surprise, Powell. What's that? Cover me up quickly. It's Bath back again."
There was a loud knocking on the door, and Bath's voice demanding entrance. George rapidly whispered his instructions in Powell's ear.
"Say you are coming," he said. "Say what you like about the Lascars. And don't go many yards away, for I shall want you in a few minutes. Now open the door."
Powell complied in a dazed way. To Bath's query as to why the door was locked he merely muttered something about the Lascars. Bath smiled into the white, clammy face.
"You've got Lascars on the brain," he said. "Mr. Renton no better? I'm sorry to hear that. Go to my cabin and you will find a bottle of brandy on the table there. Bring it to me; we must do something here. And don't forget to bring a teaspoon along with it at the same time."
Powell slipped away, and Bath crossed over to the bunk where he deemed Renton to be lying. He leant down, his heart hammering loudly. Then a strong arm shot up, and there was a grip on his throat, and the dancing of a thousand stars before his eyes.
The would-be assassin was taken absolutely by surprise. He was a powerful man and a most formidable antagonist, but the grip on his throat was so sudden and tenacious that he lost his head for the moment.
Gradually, gradually, Cathcart bent him back, a mist floated before his eyes, his checks grew purple. He went down in a heap on the floor, with Cathcart astride of him. When he opened his eyes again he felt the prick of a long, thin knife below the apple in his throat.
"One sound and you are a dead man," Cathcart whispered. "So you thought that my friend Renton was not quite so blind as he appeared to be. I have been waiting a long time for this, Sir Cyril. It was a bold move of yours to have Renton so much at your house; on the whole, it was a little too bold. So you were going to murder him on his own ship?"
Bath answered with his eyes. The situation was hopelessly lost. The only thing that he longed for now was the appearance of Jordan.
But Jordan was the one man besides Renton who could navigate the Lone Star, and he would be busy on deck for many a long hour to come.
"Don't worry about Jordan," Cathcart went on. "I'll attend to him presently. It is all over with you and Mostyn at last. Renton will get his boat back, and the insurance people will not be called upon to pay for the cargo that was supposed to be lost. As to you, sir, I will see to that presently."
Bath had no reply for the moment. With all the cunning at his command he could see no way out of the present difficulty. As a lawyer of so many years standing he had seen some dramatic surprises in his life, but nothing more dramatic and startling than this. How Cathcart had got there, how he had found his way into Renton's bunk, was altogether beyond his comprehension.
He could only lie there for the present, looking up at the swaying cabin lamp, and longing for some fortunate accident to bring Jordan downstairs. But there was little chance of that as George Cathcart very well knew. The latter's face was dark and stern, and Bath could read no mercy there.
"How did you get here?" he demanded hoarsely; "and what do you know?"
"How I got here does not matter in the least," George said. "I am here, and that is more than sufficient for you. And I know everything. I know this is the Lone Star that I was supposed to have cast away. I know that this is my friend Renton's own boat. I know that the valuable cargo for which you have claimed insurance is on board. So you were going to unload at some Northern port, and perhaps destroy the Lone Star afterwards? But there is an end of that little game; once we secure Jordan in the dock, and I shall give evidence against you."
Bath groaned internally. He was utterly and hopelessly beaten. For all he knew to the contrary, Cathcart might have had powerful assistance close at hand.
"Let me go," he whispered. "Give me a boat and let me go. This is a dreadful business. And yet if you only knew how I was tempted! Beyond the insurance fraud I have done nothing."
In spite of the fierce anger that filled him George laughed.
"Why lie to me?" he said. "Have I not told you that I have found out everything? What about your conspiracy to ruin me? Didn't you know that?"
"It was Mostyn's doing from first to last, I swear."
"I hear you. But you were perfectly aware of what was going on. You allowed Mostyn to perpetrate that shameful fraud, and Powell, who is in this boat, can prove it. I know that you would like me to believe that you are a deal less black than you are painted, and that Mostyn is the worse of the two. That he would stick at nothing, I am perfectly well aware; but at any rate he did not try to murder Renton."
"Who tried to murder Renton?" Bath gasped, white to the lips.
"You did, you scoundrel! When he turned up on board here you were certain that he knew his ship. And you dared not kill him yourself, though you had one try; so you took advantage of the ignorance of the Lascars, and pretended that Renton had brought smallpox on board. I know all about that. And but for a bit of good luck Renton would be dead at this minute. He was very ill; he is very ill now. You thought that a little gentle pressure over his heart would kill him, and you came down to do it."
Bath writhed and wriggled on the floor, looking everywhere save in the face of his accuser. The knowledge of the man seemed to be absolutely wonderful.
"I'll take my oath," he whispered. "I'm prepared to swear that you are mistaken."
"I am not mistaken. I heard you discussing the matter with Jordan, who refused to have anything to do with the business. You came to kill Renton. There was murder in your eyes as you looked down into the bunk. If I had not turned up, Douglas Renton would be a dead man now. And after this you ask me to spare you! Mostyn is a prisoner on the Psyche, and you are my prisoner here. Before the sun sets you will be in the hands of the police."
George meant every word that he said, and Bath knew it. He rose to his feet, and stood facing Cathcart, breathing heavily as if he had run far.
"What do you want me to say and do?" he asked.
"Anything you please. It is all the same to me. By heaven! when I see you standing there and think of all that I have suffered at your hands I can hardly contain myself. But for the disturbance I would take you by the collar and thump you within an inch of your life."
"Let me go," Bath said hoarsely. "I'll go anywhere. Think of the scandal!"
"Think of your disgraceful part! Think of me! By heaven! when my mind goes back to the way you have treated me—you and Mostyn together—I could flay you. But I am wasting time here. You need not trouble to argue with me."
Cathcart whistled softly, and Powell staggered in. He was a poor tool, indeed, but he was better than nothing at all. In his hand he carried a long, fine cord.
"Oh, what a time I'm having!" he groaned. "What a time! I wouldn't go through it again for anything. I'm going to be bad, sir."
"Wait till you've done what I want," said Cathcart firmly. "After that you can be as seasick as you please. Unravel that cord."
The cord was straightened out with some little difficulty. Powell's fingers trembled so that he was rapidly making bad worse. Cathcart snatched the line away impatiently.
"There!" he said; "that's what I want. Now help me to bind the fellow's arms and legs. I don't fancy he will get out of these knots in a hurry."
It was a neat job, and Bath lay there perfectly helpless. A handkerchief in the form of a pad had been fastened tightly over his mouth, so that no cry could escape him.
"Now, you stay by the cabin door," said Cathcart, "and keep an eye on this gentleman. I have other work to do yet."
George kicked off his boots and went softly towards the deck. The Lone Star was moving at speed now; the lights of the Queen of the Mist and the Psyche were rapidly fading on the port bow.
So far as Cathcart could see there was nothing like a regular watch kept on deck, even now that the Lascars were quiet. A big figure was at the wheel, which figure George had no difficulty in recognising as Jordan. The latter had a pipe between his teeth; he was humming an air to himself. But every now and then he glanced over his shoulder as if expecting to see or hear something.
Cathcart crept on, taking advantage of every bit of shelter and shadow. He could hear his quarry muttering something about the slowness of somebody.
Cathcart came on and on cautiously. His own aim was to take Jordan utterly by surprise. He was a big man, and in none too good a condition; but, on the whole, he was like to prove a much tougher antagonist than Bath. Cathcart took something from his pocket; he came still closer. He stood in a patch of shadow. From thence he made a spring, and landed fairly on Jordan's shoulders.
The big pilot stood perfectly still for a moment. He was the heavier man of the two. He was a little out of condition by reason of his irregular habits, but all the same he was tremendously powerful. Then he wriggled round, and Cathcart bore him over against the chart-house. It was perfectly dark, so that Jordan was in absolute ignorance as to who his antagonist was or when he had come.
"So that's your little game," he said between his teeth. "All right, my greasy Lascar."
"I'm no Lascar," George panted. "I am representing the owner of the boat. If you take it quietly it will be all the better for you. I know everything. Now, what are you going to do?"
Jordan made no reply in words, but it speedily became evident what he was going to do. He struggled hard to throw off the grip about him, but George had the advantage for the moment and clung to it with all the tenacity of his nature. He whistled softly as a sign to Powell, but the latter did not come. No doubt he was skulking somewhere out of the way, afraid to move.
"So there are two of you," Jordan growled. "All right, my friend. You're pretty tough, but before I have finished you'll find me tougher still. Once I am free I am going to pitch you overboard. I'll teach you to treat a peaceful, law-abiding man like this."
They swayed backwards and forwards across the dark, slippery deck. George's muscles were beginning to ache. He had half a mind to relax his grip and trust to his scientific knowledge of boxing, only, unfortunately, he could not see his mark sufficiently well. And gradually Jordan was slewing round, and his superior weight was beginning to tell. It seemed hard to be beaten with success near.
With a sudden wrench Jordan broke away. He laughed as he came on at George.
"Now, then," he said. "Now we shall see who is the better man of the two. You're a good plucked 'un. But I could eat half-a-dozen of your size."
"Come on," George said. "Come on; I'm quite ready for you. It's my turn now." His right arm went up and down like a flash. With a peculiar snort Jordan dropped on to the deck, and Cathcart bent anxiously over him. With startling surprise a pair of huge arms were thrown round his neck, and he was pulled down to Jordan's level.
"I said you'd be a dangerous customer," the latter growled. "Half an inch either way and you'd have laid me out. And now it's a case of you or me. We shall see who comes out best at the end."
Cathcart made no reply, for the simple reason that he wanted all the breath he could get. In a round hug and tumble he was no match for his antagonist in a close embrace. Then very softly Cathcart gave a low whistle.
After what seemed a long while Powell appeared. He moaned in a heart-broken way and wrung his hands. Fear seemed to have paralysed him.
"Give me a hand, you fool," George gasped, "unless you want your throat cut. There's a life-preserver close to my feet somewhere. Take it and give this chap a crack on the head. He can't touch you."
Powell came on with desperate courage. Unconsciously Jordan relaxed his hold to protect his head from the downward sweep of the life-preserver, and Cathcart took his chance. He swung in two crashing blows, and Jordan lay back like a log on the deck. With a thrill of triumph Cathcart rose to his feet.
"There are some blue lights in the cabin," he said. "Start three on port side over there. And now let me get a hand at the helm."
The ship was yawning dangerously, but the first turn of the wheel righted her again. She steamed round in a semi-circle; she came back almost to her old moorings, then she seemed to throw up her head, to pause and stagger, and then she stopped altogether.
"We're going to the bottom after all," Powell moaned.
"We're on the Flat Sands," said Cathcart coolly, "where she can't possibly get away unless she is towed off. If the worst comes to the worst there will be no more eloping with the Lone Star."
"Look!" Powell cried suddenly. "Look, look there!"
It was Bath flying across the deck. The Lascar crew and the engineer were tumbling up to see what was happening. Bath raced to the side and flung himself headlong into the white and broken water below.
"Can he manage to swim it?" Cathcart muttered. "If so, he may escape yet. If not, well, if not, it is the best thing that could have happened."
Cathcart had saved the situation just in time. Whatever happened now, it would be impossible to get the Lone Star afloat again without the aid of powerful tugs. Her bow was driven hard upon the sands; with the exception of a slight list she was perfectly safe.
The startled Lascars and polyglot engineers had crowded upon deck to see what was the matter. They grinned and chattered threateningly at the sight of their friend the doctor at the wheel, but fortunately they were more than predisposed in his favour.
But Jordan was struggling to this feet again. Just for the moment it looked like going hard with Cathcart. He was alone amongst a hostile crowd that was far more likely to do the bidding of Jordan than anybody else. Powell was worse than useless.
"The ship is sinking!" Cathcart yelled. "Look to the boats! Look to yourselves!"
He knew the men he had to deal with. He had been at sea long enough to have learned some of the Lascar language. Jordan would have said something of a reassuring nature. He would have exerted his authority by force, but his head was still heavy and dizzy from the effects of the recent blow.
"It's you or I," Cathcart said, between his teeth. "Try to get up, and I'll serve you as I did before; or if you like, you can go with the rest. Where is that paltry coward of a Powell?"
"I'm not far off, sir," a shaky voice came from the darkness. "I'm all right, sir; I'm no coward. Only so dreadfully ill."
Cathcart choked down his contempt. It was mere waste of time to be angry with a creature like this. Jordan grovelled and swore freely as the Lascars tumbled over one another to get the boats out. They were under the full influence of the panic by this time. Fortunately there were boats enough and to spare, or the scare might have ended in a tragedy.
"Are you going to use those lights I gave you?" Cathcart demanded.
Powell whined and coughed again. But he managed to retain enough sense to follow out Cathcart's instructions. A blue flare flamed over the grey waste of waters. A moment later and there came an answering blaze from the direction in which Cathcart deemed the Queen of the Mist and the Psyche to be.
"Waterloo!" Cathcart exclaimed with grim triumph. "Now you can go if you like."
He kicked Jordan contemptuously to his feet. At any other time the latter would have shown fight readily enough, but the last boat was being cut from the davits, and the pilot's experienced eye showed him that there was room and to spare. He had lost everything but his personal liberty, and to remain would be to imperil it for some considerable time to come.
He stumbled across the deck, he dropped into the boat, then it shot into the darkness. Jordan was wise in his day and generation. A moment later and Cathcart, with Powell, was alone upon the Lone Star.
"You managed that very well, sir," Powell gasped. "But I should have held on to Jordan. I don't forget that he was going to murder us both."
Cathcart declined to discuss the point. After all, that had to be proved, and the more he came to consider the matter the less he could see against the sea-pilot. The great thing now was to lay the facts before the authorities.
Presently a dipping light began to glow more steadily from the sea, and the welcome voice of Brodie gave a hail. A little later and some of the hands from the Queen of the Mist had followed Brodie on board. Cathcart stood there with a smile of welcome to assist them. The task was finished.
* * * * *
Meanwhile the Psyche had been standing off awaiting events. Even Russet had been able to give a pretty shrewd guess as to what was happening when it became impossible to see anything further of the Lone Star. It was as if the sea had swallowed her up. She went down and called to Brown. He came on deck instantly.
"What does it mean?" she asked. "Mr. Brown, the Lone Star has vanished. I suppose she thinks that she is going to steal away and give us the slip in the darkness."
"That's about the size of it," Brown was forced to confess. "They must be in pretty desperate condition to try that game on. Why, it's any odds they get run down before they have got half-way across. Still, so long as Mr. Cathcart is aboard they are not going to have everything their own way."
Russet shuddered as she pictured George's danger. His very bravery would be a source of danger. For a long time Russet remained on deck. She declined to go down to dinner. She stood muffled up in a fur cloak, straining her eyes in the direction that the Lone Star had taken. Would the boat or George be seen again, she wondered? Something like a prayer rose to her lips, when—
A blue star a mile or two away to the north, followed by another and another. Russet cried out joyfully. Brown came and stood by her side.
"It's all right," he yelled. "That's the signal. Mr. Cathcart has got the best of them. All the same, the Lone Star must be precious near the Flat Sands. Look there!"
As Brown pointed, a light or two twinkled out on the Lone Star. The lights bobbed up and down for a little time, and then became perfectly still.
"I should like to know what that means?" Russet asked anxiously.
"Capital!" Brown cried. "Now it is all right. Mr. Cathcart has got possession of the boat, and steered her on to the Flat Sands. You see, she can't get away without a tug: in any case the little conspiracy is defeated, Miss Russet; it has done away with all our troubles. I'll just go down and tell the news to Mr. Mostyn, if only to see his face."
Russet laid a detaining hand on her companion's arm.
"Will you permit me?" she said. "I suppose you will make a signal to the Queen of the Mist, and get as close to the Lone Star as possible. I'll go and see Mr. Mostyn."
Mostyn, conscious of the excitement on board, was quivering with nervous anxiety. He said nothing when Russet told him the news, but his white face was expressive enough.
"So this is the end of it all!" he muttered, after a long pause. "Russet, bad as I have been, I have never been bad to you. Give me a chance—release me. In the bustle and confusion I can get away. I've got my lifebelt here. I can't stand the idea of gaol. It would drive an active man like me mad. Let me go.... You know where the keys of these infernal things are. Only release me, and I shall find a way of escape."
* * * * *
By daylight the shores of the East Coast loomed up before those aboard the Psyche, including Cathcart and Renton, to whom a good nights rest and careful nursing had done wonders. The Lone Star had been towed off. No kind of damage had resulted from her running on the Flat Sands. There was nothing for it now but to wait patiently for the end. There was one theme of general conversation—Mostyn had disappeared in the confusion, leaving no trace behind. Only Russet said nothing.
"You did it," George said at the first opportunity. "Russet, are you not the culprit?"
"I admit it to you," Russet whispered. "It seemed to me that I owed that man something. Perhaps if I had given the matter due consideration I should have acted otherwise. But don't tell the others."
Renton came up a little feebly, but smiling. Grace was still in the cabin. As yet she had not heard what Renton had to say in his behalf.
"All over at last," he said, pulling at what he termed a well-earned cigar. "We've only got to tell our story to the Customs people and Lloyd's, and after that the Lone Star will have to be towed into port, and our story verified. Lewton's Assizes will not see you again, Cathcart."
All the same, there was a deal more to do than Renton had anticipated. It was the fourth day before they were really free. The whole story had got into the papers, and had created a tremendous sensation. Still, there was no scandal so far as Bath was concerned. His share of the transaction was known only to Mostyn, besides Renton and Cathcart. Even Powell had no idea of the identity of James Stevens. The papers noted the mysterious miscreant, but they never guessed.
"And now let us go back to Lewton," Renton suggested at the end of the fourth day. "We are free for a day or so, and there is somebody at Langdean Cross with whom I desire to have an explanation. My dear little Grace no longer imagines that I have treated her badly. Langdean Cross will be no home for her in the future."
"Langdean Cross will have to be sold, I suppose," said Cathcart. "Once Bath's creditors get an inkling of the true state of affairs—By the way, what do you suppose has become of Bath?"
"Well, I should say that he was drowned," Renton replied. "It seems a harsh thing to say, but under the circumstances the best thing that could happen. On the other hand, he was a fine swimmer, and the currents may have favored him. One thing I feel sure of, he will never be seen again."
When York was reached, Renton's prophecy was verified to the letter. Some of the evening papers were out with two big headlines on the contents bill:
DROWNING OF SIR CYRIL BATH
THE JURY BRING IN AN OPEN VERDICT
Cathcart called a boy and purchased a paper. There was not much, but that little was to the purpose. The body of a man in seafaring costume had been picked up two days before at Cullerton, some eighteen miles from Hull. It had been identified by a visitor to the little town, and subsequently by one Symonds, the valet of the deceased judge, who had been summoned by telegraph for the purpose. The evidence of Symonds cleared up the mystery to a great extent. Sir Cyril had been ill lately, and had been taking a holiday for the benefit of his health. Being passionately attached to the sea, he was fond of roughing it in coasting vessels. Quite recently he had left Hull whence he was going by sea in the first likely tramp that offered itself. Nobody had seen or heard of Sir Cyril after that. It was the opinion of the witness that Sir Cyril had met with an accident at sea. Probably he was tramping along the cliffs and had fallen over.
There was little more to be said. There was no suspicion of foul play; but, at the suggestion of the coroner, the verdict was 'Found drowned.' It was very sad; touching allusions had been made to it in various courts of justice, but nobody guessed the means that led to the distressful end.
"And there is no reason why they should know," said Cathcart. "Let it remain a secret between us who do know. Mostyn's fate must for ever remain a mystery. But those who live to be hanged are never in danger of water."
When investigations were made, however, Mostyn's creditors did not suffer. The valuable cargo of the Lone Star belonged to them, and there were other vessels that turned out well besides. Russet's money was intact—a fortune large enough, she pointed out, to make the path very smooth for herself and Cathcart. It was Grace Ives who suffered, but Renton had enough and to spare. An investigation into the mysterious affair of the Lone Star proved Cathcart's innocence beyond question. Nobody seemed to care much about Lockwood Mostyn: nobody had suffered much at his hands, and only the police were anxious as to his whereabouts.
Mr. Samuel Gem got his way over the cottage, but with the stipulation that Miss Farr should remain in the estate of single blessedness until her mistress was married. And as Russet and Cathcart had already fixed on a charming house just outside Lewton, the ex-policeman felt that his patience was not likely to be unduly tried.
"And you are not going to sea any more," Russet said.
Renton and Cathcart demurred slightly.
"We are going to have a yacht together," said Renton, "but we are not going to be selfish about it, and you girls are going to share in the pleasure. As I am going to marry and turn respectable, I shall not have quite my old appetite for adventure. I daresay Cathcart feels the same."
It was neither at Mostyn's old residence nor at Langdean Cross that the reunion took place, but at the pretty little cottage belonging to Mrs. Stennard. The elderly lady had been told as much of the story as it had been deemed necessary for her to know, and Raymond Stennard had been forgiven by the man he had so injured. He was back at work again, and quite himself, resolved to lead a better life in the future. That both Russet and Grace were soon likely to change their condition of life, Mrs. Stennard was perfectly well aware, and she had urged the girls to make the cottage their home for the time being, which they had gladly done.
It was so bright and sunny that the windows were open, and Russet and Cathcart strolled out into the garden. It was the first time that Renton and Grace had been left alone. The latter rose nervously, and would have gone had not Renton put out a hand and detained her.
"This is my first opportunity, Grace," he said. "Come, my little sweetheart, let there be no more of these misunderstandings between us. Grace, you know that I love you."
"It was good for me at one time to think so," Grace whispered.
"I love you now, my darling, and I shall love you always. I want you to say that you love me."
"Oh, you know it, Douglas. You must have known it from the first. And you were so cruel to me."
"Not intentionally, Grace. I felt that you cared for me, and only when I had to be distant to you did I realise that I had gone too far. Many a time I was on the verge of a confession. But surely if I had spoken, your happiness would have made itself manifest to everybody, especially to Sir Cyril. You know now that he was the very last person I wanted to know. To save Cathcart and a great part of my property, it was absolutely critical that I should have the run of Langdean Cross. If Bath had guessed the truth his door would have been closed to me, and all my delicately-laid plans ruined. He would have come between us—"
"But why should he have come between us, Douglas?"
"Because he did not want you to marry; because he had spent your fortune, and your marriage to anyone would have displayed the fact. But I have more than enough for both."
"And I never thought of that." Grace opened her beautiful eyes in innocent surprise.
"Of course you didn't, darling. It was a hard time for me, but I am going to make up for it now. I believe those good people went out of the house on purpose to give me this chance. Now, Grace!"
He came over to her side and took her in his arms. And as their lips met all sorrow and trouble faded away like a summer mist before the coming of the sun.
Meanwhile Russet and Cathcart had gone down to the garden together. George was silent for quite a long time.
"What are you thinking of dear?" Russet asked.
"I was thinking of Renton and Grace Ives. They are lucky, because Renton has money. And I shall have to start the world again. After what has happened my old employers—"
"Your old employers have got nothing to do with it," Russet said firmly. "We are going to carry out that yacht problem after all. And what does it matter if you have the money or I have it? You love me for my own sake, and I am not going to part with you any more, George; I should be so lonely. I couldn't marry a man who spent half his time on the other side of the world."
"I daresay people will say that I married you for—"
"Let them say what they please," Russet cried. "What does it matter anyway? Now, as nobody is looking you may kiss me and promise to be a good boy."
George kissed the tempting red lips passionately. Then he drew Russet close to him so that he could look down into the depths of her smiling, loving trusting eyes.
"Was ever man blessed with such a love as mine?" he said. "Lovely and rich and brave; she has done everything, even at the risk of her own life, to save a life like mine. Darling, when shall it be? Don't let it be long. I am sure Renton will not wait for Grace. When?"
Russet put up her lips and whispered. It was only a few words; then George kissed her again, and with happy faces they turned and walked slowly back to the house.
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